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Gaining work experience to help your career

Gaining work experience to help your career

Work experience has always been fraught with the sneaking suspicion that there might be exploitation involved, so how do you know whether working for free (or cheap) will give you traction for your future career? Here's a guide to help you navigate through the different ways you can gain work experience.

Have you ever applied for a job only to be told 'you don't have enough experience'? You might think this is a typical response for new graduates, but it's becoming more and more common for career changers, who might have experience but not the right experience for the role.

Fortunately there are a few ways to get around this, but the bad news is it involves either working for free or for a low wage. This means it's more important than ever that you ensure the role will get you the experience you need to accelerate your career.

Work placement

Some courses will state a number of work placement hours you must complete before you can attain you qualification. You will commonly see this in community services, childcare and natural therapies where after graduation you will be expected to be competent enough to take on an entry level role that will require you to perform those tasks.

These are compulsory, and as such form part of your education. It is therefore worth finding a supervisor who will also be a good teacher. Start with the training organisation you're doing your course with as it may have a database of contacts who regularly take on students (and are therefore likely to be well versed in teaching them). Other places to look include industry associations, local businesses and councils. Don't forget to tap into your network because you may have a family member or friend who has contact with someone in your future profession.

Because work placement is part of your qualification, you will need to present a letter from your training organisation to your supervisor outlining the objectives of the placement, which also covers the legal and regulatory aspects of the relationship. In some cases, work placement supervisors may be offered compensation for their time and expertise.


An apprenticeship is a structured education program that provides practical instruction for which the apprentice is paid a lower wage in return for student standard work. Apprenticeships are most commonly used in the trades, from plumbing to hairdressing, but are not unknown in other areas such as IT.

In an apprenticeship, the teacher is a working practitioner. Apprentices progress through the program with pay corresponding with their level of experience, eventually graduating to a full-pay role. The Australian Government oversees the Australian Apprenticeships program to ensure the apprentice is learning what he or she is supposed to, is being paid a fair apprentice wage, and is not being exploited.


Internships are like an apprenticeship but without the formal program, which means they may be paid or unpaid. Internships are often used to teach students on-the-job skills over an extended period in occupations outside the trades, such as accounting, business and PR/marketing.

While some qualifications may require the student to complete an internship prior to graduation, they are most commonly undertaken on a voluntary basis, which means you need to take the imitative to find a position that will give you the kind of experience you need to secure a paid role. Before you begin an internship, make sure you know what task you will be doing, how long the internship period is and your legal obligations.

Work experience

Work experience is the umbrella term for any role a student undertakes in order to acquire skills in a particular field or occupation. Work experience is generally unpaid and runs for a shorter duration than an internship, ranging from a few days to a couple of weeks.

Before you apply for any kind of work experience

  • Find out what skills and experience you need for the roles you will be applying for after you graduate. This will help you identify a work experience program best suited to your needs.
  • If you need to undergo work placement, an apprenticeship or an internship before you can attain your qualification, ensure that the placement meets the requirements of the qualification.
  • Know your rights as a student undertaking a work experience position. You may also need to provide a statement from your training organisation to prove you are a student there.
  • Be sure to read up on the legal aspects of work experience. If something should happen to you while you are on site, who is responsible, the workplace or your training organisation?
  • Make time to undergo work experience. It can be difficult to study and work but with the right balance you'll find the knowledge you obtain from your course added to the skills you acquire 'on the job' will make for a good foundation for when you begin your new career.

For more information on work experience, see Fair Work Australia > Internships, Vocational Placements and Unpaid Work

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