Building your work experience

Three people on work experience

Introduction: why work experience is important

Dear Reader,

Most people start hunting for a job when they leave education, thinking that their newly acquired degree will make them desirable to many employers and will be a foot in the door at the prestigious organisation they’ve already set their sights on. The great majority of these people will learn a very hard lesson. Employers do value knowledge but students fresh out of uni with no vocational skills or experience require a lot of training, a lot of handholding, a lot of investment and a lot of time.

“So what? There’s loads of graduate job vacancies! I’ll be fine!”

Cover letter

Picture these two students arriving at a graduate job interview. Both have a first class business degree.

Candidates for a job interview

How would you choose between them? Both are well presented, friendly, intelligent people, both capable of doing the job. But what if I told you that one of them had been volunteering for three years with a leading charity, and has run two proven, successful marketing campaigns during that time? They also have a work reference as well as a reference from their course tutor, whereas the other only has a reference from their course tutor. How would you now choose between them? Although the vacancy is a graduate job, proven skills and work experience make one graduate stand out over the other.

On graduates:

“They seem to lack the basic social communication skills, especially online etiquette skills. Most of the young girls that I come across seem to think texting a client or their manager is the same as when they text/email their friends — bad punctuation, abbreviation of words, etc. I would value or welcome basic skills, such as communication and reliability. It seems basic but it’s sure difficult to find prospective employees with those kinds of skills.”

Claire Barnes

CEO/Founder, Premier Beauty Solutions

This article is about building your work experience while you study or search for a long-term job, so that you have demonstrable skills that employers really value, and a competitive edge over other applicants. So what skills are companies really looking for? When preparing this article, we asked companies: “What skill(s) – soft or hard skills – do graduates joining your company lack? What would you value?” You’ll find quotes throughout the article from real companies responding to this question. We’ve explained the hard and soft skills that employers value, and given you ideas for how you can acquire – and demonstrate – these, to would-be employers. We hope you find the article valuable and wish you every success with kick-starting your successful career.

On graduates:

“With such heavy emphasis on technology, there seems to be a lack of basic communications skills, which not only apply to the interview process, but also to ongoing interaction and working with teams in a new workplace. Simple skills, such as making and keeping eye contact, paying attention to a teammate, and using appropriate responses like shaking hands rather than a nod of the head, are really valued because they are often missing. Employers are looking for people who have more than the requisite technical skills. They want individuals who will be a good fit for the company’s culture and existing employee base. Be smart and understand the importance of the team and team dynamics.”

Corinne Forti

President, Forti Communications Inc

Hard and soft skills – what do today’s companies want?

There are many schools of thought on what’s best in terms of hard skills and soft skills. Mostly, past generation in the workforce have always emphasised hard skills and often dismissed soft skills. Yet, in the current workforce, where knowledge has become king, and where more people operate in a global and even virtual environment, it would seem that soft skills are important and are regularly mentioned now on a company’s talent wish list.

In order to be career-ready and marketable in the competitive world of job placement, it is important to know the difference between hard skills and soft skills in terms of what they are and what they can achieve as well as better understand the importance of each. That way, you can start working on those skills now so that you can market them as part of your attractive talent package when the time comes to apply for jobs.

On graduates:

“In my experience, the modern business now looks for employees that are imaginative, resourceful, and most importantly, adaptable in the workplace. Additionally the ability for an individual to work well within a team and a company’s way of working are equal to that of their academic achievements, perhaps more so. Therefore building your personal portfolio of business and people skills is essential. Our workshops are designed to encourage creative thinking and teach some of the fundamental skills required for a successful career”.

Simon Payne

Director, Mind Adrenaline

Hard vs. soft skills

Here are some of the main differences between hard skills and soft skills:

  • Hard skills require brain power, IQ (Intelligence Quotient), and just plain old smarts. This ability is born and nurtured within your left brain, home to your logic. In contrast, soft skills capability tends to reside in your right brain and requires that you hone what is now referred to as EQ, or Emotional Intelligence Quotient, which is qualitative and somewhat intangible.
  • Hard skills are tied to quantitative subjects like mathematics, finance, and accounting as well as statistics, physics, programming and chemistry. Soft skills involve such capabilities as communication, negotiation, empathy and motivation.
  • Because hard skills are related to many areas that deal in facts and figures – quantitative data – there is a certain hard and fast feeling to these capabilities and sense of inflexibility. The rules stay the same for a “what you see is what you get’ environment. For soft skills, also known as people skills, the rules can change and flexibility is embraced or at least accepted. For example, the type of communication you use will change based on the situation or the way you negotiate will be different for each situation you encounter.
  • Hard skills are theoretical in nature. Anyone can learn them in a lecture or a book. Excelling at them often takes a lot of studying and practice. Tests can be designed to see how well you know a particular subject and a number can be placed on your level of competency. Soft skills are entirely different. They are not really learned in school, and most are tied to your personality and your experience. They become by learning on the job or by interacting with others. It’s a lot of trial and error and the most difficult to acquire because it is difficult to understand what is often intangible and so different from culture to culture or job to job.

Which one is more important? Debating soft skills over hard skills

There is no definitive answer here. In some careers and industries, hard skills may be more valuable while others emphasise soft skills. Then, there other positions where you can standout because you have a little bit of each or you have some combination thereof. Here’s why:

Careers generally fall into three main categories:

1. Careers that need hard skills and some measure of soft skills:

While you might assume a physicist only needs hard skills, it is often these type of super smart people who have the most difficulty with interpersonal communication. But, they must develop this soft skill because they must give presentations that could win funding or help get a project fast-tracked. Or, they simply must be able to communicate what they want their team to do or help motivate them to get the job done.

2. Careers that need both hard and soft skills:

A number of careers fall into this category, such as solicitors, accountants, and physicians. First, they must know the rules of their industry, which are often firm and inflexible, but, second, they need to deal with people, negotiate, win arguments, motivate and change opinions. Here, soft skills like communication and relationship building are very important to being successful in these fields.

3. Careers that need mostly soft skills and some hard skills:

A salesperson does not have to have a lot of technical skills and they do not often have hard and fast rules in place to get their job done. Most of what a salesperson does really does require a certain number of soft skills to make their pitch, be persuasive, and close the deal. Negotiation, relationship building, and communication are the main soft skills that are necessary while hard skills require some knowledge about what they are selling.

On graduates:

“My experience with graduates is that they are unprepared for the business world and require more hands-on support than new recruits who join with limited qualifications. They seem to lack common sense and make poor decisions (initially). I think in today’s world, it stems back to graduates receiving GCSE and A/AS level results that wouldn’t have got them into University 10 or 15 years ago. It’s an inherent problem with the current educational system where the Government and schools appear to perform better each year when, in fact, it is a mask hiding the actual quality of the exam candidates. Everyone prefers to turn a blind eye.”

Steve Jenner

Retired UK Government IT Data Delivery Director

Careers need to be gauged for their soft skill requirements:

1. Does my level of communication and how I work with others impact my performance review and my ability to fulfil all aspects of my job?

2. Do others who share my same hard skill set do better and get promoted faster than me? This could be a sign that they have soft skills and you need to get some quick!

3. Does my attitude impact my job performance?

If your answer is yes, then soft skills are very important and a place that might need more focus for your professional development and career objectives.

Careers in business need soft skills now more than ever:

1. The business environment is more global and diversity knowledge and management are now more important, requiring enhanced soft skills that consider other cultural beliefs and attitudes.

2. Motivation and job satisfaction are touted as ways to attract and retain talent, which would mean more soft skills have to be used to recognise and treat this talent base in a way that keeps them engaged and loyal.

3. New types of virtual work and flextime environments require a higher level of interpersonal skills as well as teamwork and communication to reach performance objectives.

On graduates:

“They lack drive. Many of the younger people expect training to handle all of the issues they face in the workplace. They lack the internal drive to solve problems on their own and come up with answers. They think all the answers should be provided for them by their superiors and, if their work performance is subpar, it is a reflection on the organisation instead of them looking at themselves. The people who are able to show self-determination and an ability to think on their feet will differentiate themselves greatly from their peers. You can pick these skills up by participating in student organisations and even internships.”

Raoul Davis

CEO, Ascendant Strategy, a CEO Branding Firm

A shift in emphasis

While most professional in today’s workforce spent most of their school and university lives focused on developing and honing hard skills, soft skills were only thought of as part of sports and social activities.

As work environments evolve and different perspectives are formed to remain competitive, soft skills have been viewed as very important to nurture. The first step is to know the most valuable soft skills to focus on that will help you stand out in today’s job market.

Valuable soft skills for today’s job market

Now that soft skills are being taken seriously, it is best to find out which ones employers are most likely to need, want, and value among their talent base. Here are some various soft skills divided by various applications that are necessary to fulfil one’s role within today’s organisations.


So much about soft skills comes from you and how you see yourself in relation to those around you. Therefore, many of the soft skills come from your own self concept like those listed here:

  • Self Awareness: Having this soft skill means knowing what makes you angry or what frustrates you as well as what motivates and drives you, what embarrasses you and what inspires you.
  • Self Confidence: Another “you” skill is believing that you have what it takes to get a project done, take on new challenges, and be successful. This is important because others sense your confidence and this helps them feel better and, sometimes, even improve their own confidence.
  • Emotion Management: Keeping your emotions in check is vital on the job and the ability to not get frustrated or angry will keep your mind clear. Otherwise, it will interfere in your creativity and productivity, thereby impacting other soft skills.
  • Stress Management: With more demands than ever before on the job and more expectations and pressure to perform, it’s easy to let stress take control over you. However, being able to stay calm, cool, and collected when you actually are internally stressing out and you can feel the sense of being overwhelmed rise inside of you is what will help you stay on track.
  • Patience: There is not enough that can be said about patience in this day and age. Living in a fast-forward, “I needed it yesterday” world where stress is not always managed well by others means that patience is a must soft skill but often one of the least found. This involves being able to take a pause, wait and let others do what they need to do instead of taking over, and keeping a clear mind when the unexpected arises.
  • Resilience: Things clearly do not always go as planned, especially in a world that is in constant flux. That’s why it helps to be able to bounce back and consider those missteps or steps backward as a way to rethink and readjust to become even better.
  • Persistence: Along with bouncing back comes the soft skill that helps you bounce back and that is not giving up. Instead, you persevere and know that you will eventually overcome barriers and you can turn challenges into opportunities.
  • Lose the Drama: Often, people become caught up in the drama and look at things through the eyes of a television serial, feeling that they have to bring drama to a situation – emotions and conflict that are simply not necessary. Being drama-free reduces office politics and does away with many “time-wasting” activities.
  • Forgive and Forget: Too many people dwell in the past and put their focus on grievances and past behaviour. This wastes times, diverts positive energy from what needs to be done, and impacts relationships that are necessary for completing projects and achieving goals.

On graduates:

“In operating a resume company where I design and develop resumes, cover letters, and other documents for people in a wide range of industries and fields as well as for those entering the workforce and those changing their career paths, there is a need to really market one’s skills and capabilities as value attributes for the employer. It’s not about objectives and a list of jobs; it’s about what can you do for them. It’s highly competitive and it’s important to work on differentiating yourself and widening your skill set and knowledge base to show that you offer more than the average graduate.”

Julie Linstrom

Owner, The Resume Hub

People – sales, motivation, and professional development

Not everything has to do with you. Many soft skills are necessary for external situations and needs that may involve increasing sales, driving motivation in others, and enhancing professional development of the talent pool. Here are the soft skills necessary for these types of roles and responsibilities:

Communication: This is a huge soft skill that involves verbal, non-verbal, written, and interpersonal applications. Active listening, respectful interchange, respect, clarity and consistency. Whether you work onsite or in an outsource, telecommuting, or virtual environment, communication is what gets the job done and helps others do their part.

Presentation: Your demeanour, appearance, and the way you engage with others are what define presentation. These traits help you maintain the attention of your intended audience and convince them to listen and believe in you so that you can reach your intended objective.

Facilitation: Everyone has opinions in a company and wants to be heard. It takes a talented individual to coordinate everyone’s often conflicting perspectives and achieve a win-win solution that will keep everyone happy with the outcome.

Creativity and Innovation: Today’s business problems are so complex that old answers and solutions no longer work. Creativity and innovation is seen as a way to create differentiation and competitive advantage. As such, it is highly valued as an attractive soft skill by many industries and companies.

Interviewing: Extracting information out of another person often may feel just like trying to pull a tooth. They are unwilling to part with it but you are bound and determined to get your hand on that information. Skill is necessary to engage that person in a way that makes them want to willingly open up and give you what you are seeking.

Selling: You do not have to be in sales to need this soft skill. You are quite literally selling things all day long no matter what you do. You might be selling your services or talents, selling an idea, selling the idea that someone else should take a particular action or selling some type of organisational change. You must be able to convince people of the value of what you are selling.

Influence/Persuasion skills: To be able to do this selling, you will need to influence and persuade others to think the way you want them without making them feel that way. It is a tricky thing to influence in a way that makes people think they thought of a decision or action all by themselves when, in actual fact, you did some sneaky persuading.

Teamwork: Although it is all well and good to be a self-starter and work independently, most jobs nowadays ask you to be part of a group or team where you have to rely on others to get the job done. This often means working with people whose personalities, the way they work, and their level of productivity and motivation may be in direct contrast to your own. You need to learn how to play nicely and make sure everyone does their fair share.

Management and Leadership: These are two different levels of soft skills. While both involve motivation and delegation, leadership should be more inspirational and communicate expectations and strategy.

Difficult People and Situations: It is impossible to get along with everyone and handle every situation. Some are going to be clearly more difficult and require some patience and skill in diffusing conflict or problems.

Networking: Today’s business and opportunities come from who you know and, more importantly, who they know so they can pass your name on or help make a connection that opens the door to new business or collaborations for a win-win. Whatever the end result, networking is how business is built today so it is important to stay open to that on a face-to-face basis as well as through online channels.

Negotiation: With so many perspectives and a growing focus on “what’s in it for me,” negotiation is becoming a highly valued skill where you can help create common ground, develop answers that satisfy everyone’s needs, and help maintain very important relationships despite the initial conflict.

On graduates:

“Passion. Without passion, you might as well be flipping burgers somewhere because you’ll never get the gumption to get out of bed and perform your tasks.”

Erica Simons

Founder and President, Simons Studios

Organising and Multitasking: Increasing responsibilities on the job require that we do more with less time and resources. This takes the ability to organise and prioritise tasks, transactions, and people to get the job done in an efficient and often cost-effective way.

Mentoring and Coaching: Helping others to improve their hard and soft skills is a highly valued trait because it involves building performance that will benefit the entire organisation as well as the individual is being mentored or coached. Teaching others through constructive wisdom and criticism as well as through learning mechanisms and training is a very special trait that relies on the availability of many other soft skills to be successful at it.

Learning: The ability to be open to learning new things and developing as a person is a must-have soft skill for today’s knowledge economy. A willingness to be open to new things and new ways of looking at things is a sought-after trait.

How many soft skills are necessary?

In reading this list, it is easy to see how so many of these are necessary in today’s job environment and why organisations would admire these soft skills. While it may be impossible to have all of them, it is important to work on as many of the internal and external soft skills as possible. Remember, the more that you can offer an employer, the better chance you will have of winning that prized job opening.

“How can I demonstrate skills?”

If you’ve got skills, you can demonstrate to prospective employers that you have them by giving examples of what you have worked on and your achievments. But if you’ve got no real experience to put on your CV, you’ve got no way of showing prospective employers that you are right for the role they’re advertising. So what do you do? Firstly, have a think whether you’ve ever done any of the kind of work on this page. It may be that you have more experience to include than you think! If not, volunteering, either in the charity sector or at a local business, can help give you the experience you need to get your foot in the door. Here are some other ideas for building your experience on your CV:

Part time work

Gaining a little work experience in a part time role gives you the chance to demonstrate a whole range of skills. For example, you might not think bar work could be valuable for your future marketing career but it could give you the chance to show teamwork, communication, how you handle difficult situations – as well as reliability and punctuality. The job itself can be less important than the skills it allows you to demonstrate. While you’re job hunting, get a part time role and work hard – not only will you gain experience for your CV but you’ll also have someone to give you a good reference.


The Internet has made getting freelance jobs much easier. You can write, design, build websites, edit, proofread and do a whole host of other things without any previous experience. You build your kudos up by doing a few good jobs cheaply and getting decent ratings for them – then you’ll have something to add to your CV and you’ll be able to command higher fees. Try these sites:

  • Bizreef – offering freelance jobs in writing, programming, graphics, SEO, marketing, video, social media and the like. Easy to use.
  • Freelancer – another site for freelance jobs which also allows you to earn a bit of extra cash through their affiliate/referral program.
  • Odesk – freelance jobs of just about any description that can be completed via the web. From programming and web design to SEO and translation, there’s no limit to what people post jobs for on here. The downside is that you’re competing against a lot of cheap labour so you’ll probably use it mostly just to clock up some experience rather than to make some serious money.
  • Peopleperhour – another freelance jobs marketplace offering the usual online jobs – marketing, graphic design, writing and so on.
  • Scriptlance – originally just for programmers, but now for programmers, writers, designers and marketers.
  • Tutor hub – make money offer tutoring to students.


Volunteering is a great way to gain work experience. There are websites that make it easy to find volunteering opportunities such as Do It, Worldwide Volunteering, and V Inspired (14-25 yr olds). The Direct Gov site also has more ideas for volunteering, such as in local hospitals and the community.

Volunteering doesn’t always mean working for charity. You can also approach local businesses with a concise, well written letter explaining your skills and offering to work for them for free for a set period of time. You can also gain relevant experience by doing other jobs for free – for example, writing for a local newspaper, or designing for a small business or charity.

Working with others

Look out for opportunities to work on local projects and enterprise schemes. For young people, the Young Enterprise charity offers great opportunities and work experience – they also welcome volunteers.

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award allows 14-24 year olds to get involved with local community projects to build their skills and attain a Bronze, Silver or Gold Award at the end of it. You can choose what project you get involved with or start one up for yourself.

Own projects

There’s nothing at all to stop you starting your own small business, building your own website, or writing a blog – each giving you the opportunity to demonstrate various skills to prospective employers. Ebay and Amazon marketplace make starting a business online incredibly easy, and WordPress allows you to start a blog with no programming or technical knowledge at all.

Life experience

If your CV is totally blank, situations you have been in and problems you have effectively dealt with can provide further examples of valuable skills.

Demonstrating your skills

Depending on the type of job you’re going for, it might be possible to demonstrate your skills to your prospective employer through analysis of their company. A great place to do this would be in your cover letter. For example, if you’re going for a marketing, social media, search engine optimisation or design job, you can perform an analysis of your prospective employer’s existing marketing promotions / communications, social media interactions, SEO efforts or design efforts, offering mock ups, one or two killer ideas and practical suggestions for improvements. Your analysis should be positive and constructive – imagine the person reviewing your application is responsible for whatever you’re giving feedback on and that should keep your comments in check! For most roles, you can suggest ideas for how your prospective employer could make efficiencies, expand their business, use technology and so on. Showing an awareness of current market conditions and competition is impressive, whatever role you’re applying for. Don’t give too much though – you don’t want them to cut you out of the picture – just offer a couple of strong ideas and a really good understanding of how the business operates.