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Employment

How students and graduates can stand out and land their first job

Covid has made it harder for graduates, but there are more ways to gain work experience than ever. Becky Barnes speaks to the experts.

Students and graduates are facing an even bigger challenge than usual to find work because Covid has left them unable to build their CVs. But getting work experience isn’t the challenge it once was.

Nearly half of university students feel unprepared for employment due to the pandemic, according to a recent survey by student careers site Prospects. Ninety-six per cent of more than 7,000 respondents said they faced barriers when looking for jobs or apprenticeships.

Many students have been unable to undertake work experience due to restrictions and they say this is the biggest barrier when seeking a job. A shortage of entry level positions and lacking the required skills are also presenting challenges for applicants, according to the analysis.

Jayne Rowley, executive director for JISC student services, said: “The lack of work experience has left students feeling unprepared and uncertain about their careers. However, there are lots of things that students will have been doing to develop such as helping out neighbours and studying remotely.

“Resilience, communication and flexibility are all skills that the pandemic has brought out and that employers value. We need to help young people identify what they have been doing in a way that will boost their confidence and enable them to progress their careers.”

As well as university careers services, there are platforms and projects out there giving students and graduates the opportunity to get paid, degree-relevant work experience to help them on their career path.

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Here are top tips from the experts on how students and graduates can stand out from the crowd when applying for a job.

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Getting work experience

Getting a foot in the door is the first challenge and it’s one Udrafter hopes to address directly, allowing businesses to post one-off paid jobs or projects to be completed by students and connect students and businesses for paid internships. 

Students and graduates can gain work experience by registering for Udrafter via the website or app with their university email. Once registered, members can log into a jobs board and apply for paid work from businesses looking to expand their team and fill skills gaps. Workers get paid through a cashless system and Udrafter takes a service fee on top of that from the business. Once work is complete, students will be able to print off a certificate to complement their CV.

Luke Morrow, co-founder of the online student work experience marketplace Udrafter, says: “A lot of first jobbers have talent that is untapped and a lot of businesses can overlook that and assume and stereotype these as young people who need their hand held all the time and are not worth the investment.

“These people have value to give and the result of empowering them to do good work for these companies and giving them the reins to do that can have a huge impact. The creativity and energy and enthusiasm that early talent bring to a business can make them stand out so much.”

Kimberley Owen, operations manager at charity Catch22, says getting work experience as early as possible is key. “We see a lot of students with masters that say they can’t get employment because they haven’t got work experience that links them to what they want to do.”

She advises students to take any opportunity that comes their way whether at university or outside.

‘Put in 10 per cent more’

“If you put in 10 per cent more effort than you do now, you’re going to stand out,” says Luke.

Putting in a bit more effort could involve going onto the company website before you submit your CV and doing some extra research, Luke advises. “It’s about understanding how the company makes money and its business model so when you’re writing your cover letter or going into an interview situation you can stand out,” he adds. 

“A lot of early talent lack commercial awareness,” Luke says. “If you can understand you’re not just a cog and you actually know what the impact you’re having on the objectives at the top, then any conversation you end up in you can always relate back to those things.”

‘Match your CV to the job description’

“Get the job spec and look at every individual element of the words,” says Luke. “Take the verbs and use them in your CV.”

This means if the job description says you need to analyse, specifically talk about what you have analysed. If it says you need to be creative, specifically reference what you have created.

You can also make your CV sparkle by hyperlinking to your work, adds Luke.

Kimberley agrees: “It’s good to have a strong CV that shows transferable skills. A lot of people will use one personal statement for all roles but it’s best to make it very tailored when applying for roles.”

‘Create something for the company’

Another way to really stand out is by trying to actually create something the company would find useful that would showcase your skills, Luke suggests. “It’s hugely valuable,” he says.

This could mean if you want to work in marketing, you go and write some marketing materials for the company, or make an attractive graphic with a free tool like Canva and put their branding on it.

How to stand out during an internship or work experience

Build relationships

Internships are a great opportunity to build a relationship with an employer that could result in a job in the future. “You never know when that connection is going to come back into your life and potentially open the door to another opportunity,” says Luke. 

Kimberley adds: “Think about the stepping stones like networking. Make sure you’re using virtual platforms to connect and tapping into what we call the hidden job market, which is being in the right place at the right time where conversation can just strike up and opportunities arise. It’s about thinking outside the box and being creative.”

Be willing to make mistakes

“Try to let go of your fears of failing or making a mistake because if you can do that, you’ll build up that relationship and trust with that business owner or manager,” says Luke. “By having the attitude of not being perfect and being able to make mistakes, you’ll learn a lot faster.”

Ask questions

Kimberley says: “Stand out by putting yourself forward and make sure you’re not blending into the background. Ask questions and be inquisitive.”

She suggests trying to shadow people if there are any focus groups going on or any changes within the company.

Keep learning

Being open to learning as much as possible is key, says Luke. “If you can do that now it will serve you well for the rest of your career because the job market changes so quickly and the skills that are in demand change so fast from year to year, so the mindset of upskilling yourself as you go will set you apart in your career.” You can also upskill yourself in your own time by following experts who regularly give away free information online

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Be proactive

“Being proactive is an amazing string to your bow,” says Luke. “If you’re thinking ahead, you’re going to be valuable in whatever you do. You don’t have to be your own business to be an entrepreneur. You can have ideas and be creative – these are all self-driven traits.”

Udrafter’s new membership for students and graduates now includes mentorship, which means they can receive coaching by phone to help them stand out from the crowd.

Prospects also offers an online career planning tool at Prospects.ac.uk, part of JISC. The site’s Future You programme has expanded this year to offer more events, content, videos, webinars and podcasts as well as more virtual opportunities to bring students and graduates together with employers and careers advisers

“Employers shouldn’t expect to see the classic things like work experience on CVs this year,” said Rowley. “Their expectations need to reflect the actual experiences of students during the pandemic. This is the Zoom generation and they’re gearing up for a digital workplace.”

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