The Intern’s Guide to Work Experience: What are Internships, Graduate Schemes and Industry Placements?

The best thing you can do to your first permanent full-time role, is to gain a little experience. This gives you the opportunity to trial out life within a company, and perhaps test to see whether your chosen field is one that really interests you. You’ll learn on the job what it’s like to fill a certain role, what’s required of you, and what you should expect from an employer. It’s the perfect bridge from study to work.

Yet there seem to be a million different terms used to describe this bridge. If you’re a graduate can you apply for an internship? Is there a difference between scheme and placement? Do volunteers have the right to be paid? We have created a definitive to work experience to help you choose the right pathway for your future, and explain the ins and outs of certain roles.

What is an intern? (and an internship?)

Interns are usually students or undergraduates, new to the workforce, who are looking to gain experience in a chosen field of work. Internships are offered by companies and businesses in order to provide work experience and mentoring opportunities to these new workers. Internships take the form of a placement, lasting anywhere between a few weeks to several months, with some even contracted up to a year.

Internships in the UK should generally be paid according to national regulations. If you are a “worker” in a company you are entitled to at least the national minimum wage. This is to protect young workers from being exploited and ensure that you get the correct remuneration for any contributions you make to a company. To find out more about intern rights in the UK, you can check out the government website HERE.

Internships are a chance for you to not just trial a job or industry, but for employers to see whether you are the right fit for their company. Employers will treat an internship as an extended interview or probationary period.  More often than not, their is a permanent, full-time position at the end of an internship for the right candidate who has proven themselves throughout their time at the company.

There are many benefits to an internship. There are many things about employment in a business that you can’t learn from a university degree. Working with a range of other employees, from varying professions and backgrounds, within a real company is an exciting experience. You will learn a lot on the go about company goals and values, deadlines, and the way employees interact vertically and laterally. It’s an experience you want to have under your belt before saying yes to a full-time contract.

intern internship

What is a graduate programme?

Graduate programmes are similar to internships, with a more formal recruitment and training process. Varying from company to company, and between industries, they are often a year-long programme provided by larger companies to recent graduates, therefore if you are still a student, this placement probably isn’t for you. As expected, you need a degree to qualify.

Graduate schemes and programmes tend to work in two different ways. They can allow the graduate to trial different areas of a company or business, with some programmes seeing their graduates move between locations too (a bonus if your company is multi-national!). Graduates can then experience multiple aspects of a company and make a more informed decision about future work. Other programmes are much more fine tailored to specific career pathways, and expect graduates to be fairly certain about their career pathway.

It is not uncommon for graduates to finish with a professional qualification at the end of their programme, therefore the year can also pair your work with further studies funded by the company.

Graduate schemes are paid, and commonly quite well. Because the company invests quite a bit more in you than the average internship, and has you with them for longer, the recruitment process is more formal. There could be multiple interviews, psychometric testing, and assessment centres.

What is an industry placement?

Industrial placements – or sandwich years – are undertaken by those still studying a degree, in order to gain hands on work experience in a chosen industry. It’s usually vocational-based degrees  that offer industry placements, typical in marketing, design and fashion. Your university will often credit your time spent with the company as a part of your course, although finding and applying for the placement year is in the student’s hands. Most placements will pay their workers, although some do not, and are exempt from doing so under the laws previously mentioned.

The advantages of a year of work within your degree are multiple. This is a great solution to gaining work experience without trying to juggle work with study. It will give you an edge against fellow students without any experience, as you will gain insight into your industry that can’t be taught. On graduating, those who have worked in the industry for a year tend to be more desirable than those who haven’t.

student-study-work placement

What is a volunteer?

Anyone can be a volunteer, and the work can involve anything really. What you do when you are volunteering is willingly giving up your time for a certain cause. Usually for charities and other non-profit organisations, your labour is free. It’s a great way to gain some experience and show you are passionate about a specific industry. You can meet a lot of people and there are often many opportunities to network.

Under UK laws, volunteers do not have to be paid, so beware that some companies who are looking for graduate level employees may label what is essentially an internship as a “volunteer position.” If you are a volunteer, but feel you are doing the work of an employee or worker, read more about it on this government website here.

What is an apprenticeship?

An apprenticeship is a combination of work and training, that can be started by anyone as early as 16 years of age. Essentially you get to “earn while you learn” and you finish an apprenticeship with a nationally recognised qualification in a trade.  They usually last between 1-5 years in duration and an account for many jobs across the UK in a wide range of industries, including engineering, accountancy, public relations, veterinary nursing, and more.  Apprenticeships are now available up to degree level and beyond.



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