How to make your job work for you

For many students, finance is a primary challenge of the university or college experience, and an increasing number are responding to shortfalls with part-time work during term time or holidays. Extra money is the main incentive, taming overdrafts and boosting daily living budgets, while in extreme cases it may even make the difference between being able to do a degree or not.

But many, such as Tim Hunt, 23, a BSc graduate from Bath University who combined bar work with a psychology degree, simply want to keep debt to a minimum. “I wanted to come out of university without owing a horrendous amount, and decided to work instead of getting a student loan. I enjoyed earning my own money and having financial security.”

Visions of offspring breaking academic frontiers by day and rocks by night are largely unfounded. For the majority of students, working up to a suggested optimum 15 hours a week is a positive experience with beneficial effects on bank balance, academic work and career prospects.

Scope for work and study depends on the nature and intensity of the course, but employment options are broad – from semi-skilled to skilled work in the commercial sector and the university itself. Popular options include retail, bar work, office administration and catering, with wages dependent on skill levels and location.

The first call for job hunters are university job shops, campus-based centres geared around student employment that have sprung up in response to growing need. Most provide newspapers, reference material and vacancy details, both within and outside the campus itself. Job shops can run from the students union along agency lines, handling salaries and paying students on behalf of employers or from the careers service, notifying students of vacancies. Importantly, they ensure employers abide by the minimum wage and advise on employee rights.

But while supplementing funds may be the cold, hard fact of student work, the evolution from idealistic to industrious undergraduate has Darwinian undertones. Astute students know they can use their work skills to give them an edge in the crowded, competitive graduate job marketplace.

Samara Booth, 20, is a third-year student at Leicester University who works as a consultant at the university’s Student Employment Centre. “Working while studying shows employers you’ve used your time constructively. And I can draw on experience like phone and marketing skills, customer relations and teamwork to give me a boost on job application forms after graduation.”

Employers are looking for transferable skills, now seen as essential to a degree. Top of the list are communication, teamwork, initiative, motivation, problem solving, organisation, IT and commercial awareness. However, the student – pulling pints or answering phones – has to recognise the nature of their experience.

“Employers are very keen on commercial awareness. If you’re stacking shelves and just see it as that, you’re not going to be considered commercially aware. If you understand what would happen if you did it badly or if the right products weren’t there for the customer you have an advantage. The trick is to see work as a commercial, rather than physical activity,” says Neil Harris, Head of the Careers Service at University College London.

Tom Lovell, Operations Manager for Graduate Recruitment at Reed Employment, agrees: “Work experience at university and college definitely gives a student a head start from a recruiter’s point of view, but they have to understand what they’ve learnt and how they can make that come through.”

Employers are also keen to see examples of initiative or problem-solving in future employees, and part-time employment can give students experience to draw on. Not least in that the decision to work in the first place – to boost financial and personal capital – is a demonstration of both.

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