Getting Job Experience: Time Is on Your Side

During a speech to the National Association for Business Economics in late March, Federal Reserve Board chairman Ben Bernanke said that an improved labor market would depend on stronger economic growth. In other words, the economy has to get better before offers for job seekers start pouring in. Now, more than ever, it is important to get job experience early so that you have a competitive advantage when it comes time to start handing out your career-oriented résumés.

In this essay, guest columnist Casey Slide, who regularly contributes her insights on student life and personal finance to, suggests a number of ways that students can start the job search while still in high school.

Whether you’ve harbored a lifelong dream to be a doctor or a scientist, or enter a university as an “undeclared” major, you are going to have a fairly good idea as to what career you wish to pursue by the time you earn your college degree. However, despite the fact that tuition is increasing, job opportunities are not — unemployment rates for new college graduates are rising, while average student loan debt is now more than $20,000 per student.

With fierce competition in the job market and a need to pay off those hefty student loans, it’s important to take the necessary steps now to ensure that you will stand out from the pack when you apply for highly desirable jobs in your field. Getting job experience while you are young is crucial. By putting forth extra effort to get your foot in the door in your chosen field, you can greatly reduce the likelihood that you will encounter a roadblock that many college graduates must contend with: lack of a track record.

The concept of gaining work experience is often a catch-22: You need work experience to get a job, but you need a job to get work experience. Below, we offer some ways to get around this obstacle.

Start Early

Rachel Miller, 17, has known since fifth grade what she wants to do with her life: “I want to be a nurse and then go on to be a midwife. And I plan to get experience anywhere I can,” she says. Like many high school students, Miller is gaining experience now that will benefit her as she goes through college and eventually tries to land her first job.

High school students have an advantage when it comes to landing a job. First of all, time is on their side. A 17-year-old has more years to gain experience as opposed to someone in his or her 20s. Furthermore, by doing this prior to attending college, a high schooler can know with greater certainty if the career he or she initially aspires toward is truly worth pursuing. Plus, having pertinent work experience can help a student stand out during the college application and interview process.


Many industries welcome volunteers who are willing to help with basic duties. A common example of this is the health care field. In fact, many hospitals offer special summer programs for teens. The tasks are typically non-medical, and include patient transportation, visitor support and visitation coordination. A number of hospitals accept as many as 100 teens for their eight-week summer volunteer programs, such as Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s yearly VolunTEEN program.

Complete an Internship

Often, an even better alternative to volunteering is to get an internship. Internships entail more duties than volunteering and often conclude with an evaluation, which reports the progress and success of the student’s work. If positive, this evaluation can greatly enhance a student’s credibility.

While it is definitely a résumé-booster, the downside of an internship is that it requires more of a time commitment than a volunteer position, not only in hours per week, but also in the duration of the program.

Shadow Professionals

An alternative to volunteering and interning is to spend time shadowing a professional. While you won’t be able to put this experience on your résumé, you will be able to network and meet people in your field. Considering that 37% of people found their current jobs via networking — more than any other method — networking is a crucial element to any job search.

Job shadowing also provides a great opportunity to get an inside look at the day-to-day routines and experiences you will encounter in your desired career. This can provide excellent, first-hand insight.

Build a Portfolio

Showcase yourself and your work by creating a portfolio of projects related to your chosen career field. This is an especially useful tactic if you are unable to volunteer or intern in your industry prior to college graduation.

A portfolio can be made regardless of the industry that you aspire to enter, but it is especially important in industries such as architecture, graphic design and art. So start compiling yours early.

Get Involved in Clubs and Societies

When I was in college, I joined Alpha Pi Mu, the honor society for my major, industrial engineering. While a member of this society, I was able to network with many speakers and presenters from my profession. It was also while a member of this group that I met a fellow student who was working as an intern at Walt Disney World and was able to get me an interview. Not only did I land the internship, I walked away with an amazing job experience and was able to network with more professionals. None of this would have happened had I not joined the Alpha Pi Mu society.

Get an Entry-level Position

Sometimes it takes getting your foot in the door at any level to launch a career at a company. For instance, suppose that a job you desire requires two years experience, but you only have one year under your belt. Consider taking an entry-level position with that company to gain the additional experience required for a more desirable position.

Do Temporary Work

In a difficult economy, sometimes it pays to do temporary work. Temp work comprised 26.2% of the private-sector jobs created in 2010, and that number is expected to increase to 36% in 2012. Taking a temporary position gives you and your employer time to test each other out. Sometimes this works well and sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, you’ll gain experience, even if only for a couple of months.

Highlight Your Project Work

If you haven’t worked directly in your industry, you likely have done work in the classroom. Include applicable school experience and projects on your résumé and in interviews. While this does not count as professional experience, it is still valuable and can demonstrate your skills, creativity and leadership.

When it comes to getting a job, often it’s not what you know, but whom you know. Always remember that networking is key, and make every effort to meet and work with as many people in your industry as possible, starting at a young age. By being diligent, enthusiastic and keeping an eye out for every opportunity, you will gain critical experience that will allow you to blossom into a highly desirable professional in the years to come.



Why is so much emphasis placed on job shadowing, internships and volunteering?

What is temp work?

Why is getting early job-related experience especially important today?


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Have you had an internship or job shadowing experience? How did you get it? Was it successful? Why or why not? Post your comments to the story and on our Facebook page at


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