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With everything online now, how are we meant to prepare for the working world without hands-on work experience?

It’s been almost a year since the pandemic started and lockdown became our way of life. Yet, time goes on and another academic year has gone by with it, making some of us approach the final years of our degrees facing mounting pressure to get the work experience prospective employers will likely be looking for. 

It seems undoable and unreasonable. How on earth are we supposed to meet the demands and expectations of today’s labour market while for months our lives have consisted of sitting in a flat all day, our eyes glued to a computer screen, interacting with no one but our flatmates – if we’re lucky enough (or not) to have them? When the most exciting thing to happen to us has been a new season of our current binge being released on Netflix? Our personal lives have been put on the backburner, blurring with our academic lives and occupying the same spaces in literally every way. 

Most employers will look for someone with a wide range of skills and the experience to back them, in addition to a stellar academic record, which is proving hard enough on its own at the present time. If you’re a STEM student, you’ve most likely had no time in the lab and had to sit through five to six hours of daily online lectures instead. If you’re on the side of the arts or social sciences, essays and coursework have probably become the bulk of your final grade. So, either way you’ve most likely spent endless hours a day either listening to lectures or reading academic papers, and mental exhaustion is at its peak. Unless you’re in health or social care, everything has been reduced to zoom. 

Where are we going to find the time and motivation to do anything else when that in itself feels insufficient as it is, and when the grades it's all for are only one small requirement of the employee package. 

It seems like relying on past work experience is all that’s left - those summer jobs or weeks in industry in high school. However, this overlooks an important factor, which is that not everybody has had the opportunities to get work experience throughout school. The University’s student body is far from heterogeneous, and not everyone has had the privilege of attending a school that provides these things. 

What to do then? I’m wondering too. You’ll have noticed that your university email inbox has been overcome by a flood of Internal Communications updates, SRC announcements, and those weekly Careers Services emails. If you’re like me or most people, you’ve probably passively marked them all as read or directly ignored them. “Oh, the uni is offering the odd zoom webinar on how to write a CV, helpful” swipe left to delete. It’s easier to be angry about it all and sceptical to anything and everything, because, understandably, burnout is a thing and it is affecting most of us right now. But herein lie opportunities. 

Right now it’s almost impossible to find valuable and relevant hands-on work experience. You’re not the only one who has realised this. Those prospective employers have been impacted by this pandemic too, and aren’t going to expect you to have attained tonnes of work experience in this last year. No one’s going to gawp at that big 2020-shaped gap on your CV, trust me.

So, in the meantime open those emails, there are plenty of vacancy opportunities and volunteering opportunities. Even if it is online, that might be better yet, as you can do some multitasking while ticking those boxes. Get out there. Engage as much as possible with any online events happening related to your field. There are countless of both free and paid-for open online courses covering all kinds of topics and skills. Have you heard of Coursera? It has everything you could think of. Learn a language, complete an online course, volunteer anywhere and everywhere, attend those webinars hosting talks with important or relevant people in the field. 

The world hasn’t stopped, even if it really feels like it has for the past year. And it can’t stop completely. We’re all tired, angry, burnt out, but one day it will be over, and when that day comes employers everywhere will be on the lookout for eager, problem-solving and adaptable young professionals. Trust yourself that what you’ve done is the best you could have done, and put yourself out there as much as you can. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, like everyone keeps saying, and it seems as though that’s starting to look more true, with vaccines successfully rolling out and lockdown starting to ease as we meet the lighter and warmer months. 


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