How to get a placement with no prior experience

One of the biggest tips for getting into a top university is to include some relevant experience in your personal statement. It’s scary and a vicious cycle can form in your mind.

“I need experience to boost my application. I don’t have enough experience to appeal to employers. I don’t know any engineers personally who will give me a chance. I won’t get into the university of my choice without experience.”

We all need to make the first step and, believe it or not, it’s simply expressing interest.

Now let’s break down and disprove a few of those myths.

You don’t need work experience for an application, as long as you can relate whatever experiences you have to the engineering world. This applies to both work experience and university applications, and I personally know plenty of engineering students at university who have yet to do a placement. A good example of a relevant, non-placement activity is swimming or other sports, which develops skills in discipline and analysis – both useful in an engineering degree.

Going out and getting an engineering placement is useful, however, in much more than your personal statement. It can confirm whether it is the right pathway for you in the first place, give an accurate insight in what type of engineering interests you (and there’s a lot of different courses about), and then, of course, it does give you an easy paragraph or two for your personal statement.

Kate has written about five reasons why you should apply for work experience

The beauty is that – as long as you don’t expect payment – employers are usually impressed when a younger student email them and many will invite you for a shadowing experience for between a day and a week. All you need is enthusiasm, a suitable nearby company, an email, and luck (or persistence). Then, you just have to hope they reply positively!

While on placement in the Summer, I was shadowed by a local Year 11 student here in Bristol and deliberately planned my work schedule so that it was work they could understand, help out with, and also find fun and engaging. In this case, we were performing visual inspections on fan blades for aircraft engines and the student got the chance to work on a live project with exciting parts without the work being too demanding.

Now, in that case, the student’s parent did have a role at University which gave them a way-in to the work I was doing in the first place. This moves us nicely onto Myth #3: needing to know an engineer to get in.

No matter how enthusiastic you are, or how brilliant your email is, knowing somebody is the easiest way into a company for a placement while still at school. In industry, it’s known as a warm introduction rather than a cold-call. Your ‘inside-person’ can vouch for your reliability and take the brunt of responsibility for you if and when you spend time at the company.

At this point, I realise I’m not doing a great job at mythbusting, but the trick is that if somebody doesn’t spring to mind in your immediate connections, ask a different question within your network of family and friends. Instead, ask if they know any engineers. If they don’t, then see if they can ask around for somebody who does. And so on, and so on.

I went on my first unpaid placement when I was 15 during the London 2012 Olympics – great timing for office chit-chat. It started with a simple expression of interest to my parents: “I’ve been recommended engineering by a teacher but don’t really know what it is.” My mum worked part-time for an estate agency and my dad worked with charity shops – they really couldn’t offer the faintest insight or contact themselves. So, it was passed onto my older half-sister, who happened to work in general careers advice. She didn’t know anybody directly, but their colleague worked with a local company producing satellite antennas for devices such as golf ball trackers. Finally, my email got forwarded by a ‘warm contact’ onto their Head of Design, a lovely New Zealander arranged a brilliant two weeks of work and a great first experience of engineering.

Most first placement stories sound like a stroke of luck or some well-placed coincidence you have no control over, but they are not. Luck comes with expression of interest and persistence. Keep asking, try different people, Google nearby companies hiring engineers and double check those with your network. Many non-engineering companies can offer engineering work and therefore experience. If you’re cold-calling emails, keep sending them, keep following up when they don’t reply, tweet a young engineer like Kate or myself, and keep putting yourself out there. Eventually, an opportunity will arise and if you take it well, they may keep coming afterwards.

Featured Image: This is Engineering