Do Employers Care if You’ve Had a “Real” Job? Tips for Making the Most of Non-Traditional Work Experience

Posted September 10, 2014 by
Student getting work experience; printing

Student getting work experience; printing. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

You see it in almost every job listing: “Experience required.” Those two little words can be a big problem for college students and recent graduates, many of whom have little to no employment history or professional experience.

It’s a catch-22 for many students and recent grads just entering the job market. After all, how can you start getting job experience, if employers won’t hire you until you have experience? It’s a paradox that adds even more stress to an already hectic time in your life.

But the issue of experience is something that can be solved – or at least worked around. The next time you see an opening for what sounds like your dream job, don’t give up when you see “Experience required.”  Even if you haven’t worked in a traditional setting or gained relevant experience in the field, you probably have some kind of knowledge or skills you can apply to the position.

The trick? Figuring out how to sell the experience you do have in order to get your foot in the door.

What do employers really look for?

It’s true that most employers want to see some relevant experience on your resume. But there’s more to landing a job than having already had a job. Employers also value personal strengths and qualities known as “soft skills.” These include:

  • Planning, organizational and communication skills
  • Ability to work well with a group
  • Critical thinking and problem solving skills
  • Strong leadership qualities
  • Motivation and a willingness to get things done
  • Ability (and desire) to learn and pick up new skills

When it comes to wowing an employer, these soft skills are often more important than textbook-perfect technical knowledge. The reason? You can learn technical skills on the job. Soft skills, on the other hand, are proof of independent motivation and drive. And you can gain these skills outside the classroom – in jobs, internships, and even extracurricular activities.

Employers like to see applicants who are dedicated, hard-working and committed, not to mention ready to tackle whatever projects are put before them. This is where time spent on the job – any job – comes in handy. Whether you gained experience stocking shelves or building websites for nonprofits, employers want to know that you can take what you learned and apply it to a different position.

So – where can you go to start developing these soft skills?

Part-time work

Getting hired is easier if you have some kind of job experience – even if it’s not in a position that’s directly related to your field of study. Working any job, in any field, builds skills that employers like to see, like responsibility and organization. Try to land at least a part-time gig while you’re still a student, whether it’s as an office assistant or a grocery store clerk.


Extracurricular activities are also an important part of the equation. You don’t have to participate in every club or organization on campus, but you should try to be involved in one or two that teach skills that translate well to the workplace. Being the secretary or vice-president of a group can help you gain experience in organization or leadership. Volunteer work shows future employers that you’re willing to take the initiative and work for causes you believe in.


Something else that catches the eye of employers? Internships. Many companies give preference to applicants with some formal internship experience. Interning lets you get a feel for what it’s like to work in an industry, gain real-life job experience, and build valuable skills that you can use later on. Interning also allows students to start making connections and building relationships with established professionals. If you can’t get a summer- or semester-long internship, try job-shadowing programs that allow you follow professionals in a field for a few days or weeks.

True, volunteering and interning aren’t likely to be lucrative – at first.  But the things you learn and the connections you make will be invaluable when it comes to landing a paying position later on. Don’t be afraid to go to your campus career center to get help finding opportunities.

Making the most of non-traditional work experience

Still don’t feel like you have any significant work experience? It’s time to get creative. Sit down and make a list of:

  • Classes taken for your major
  • Extracurricular activities, including clubs and student government
  • Jobs you’ve held (whether or not they’re in your chosen field)
  • Special projects you headed up
  • Business opportunities you were involved in
  • Volunteer work
  • Internships

Jot down a brief description of what you did for each one, including individual projects and skills. Anything can count as experience, as long as you’re able to relate it to the jobs you’re applying for. Think of this list as your portfolio, a way to showcase your experience (traditional or not) to future employers.

While you’re waiting to land that dream position, keep looking for more ways to expand your horizons. If you volunteer or are working in an internship, start networking with the professionals you meet in the field. Ask if they know of any other great contacts or job opportunities, and follow up on those leads. Networking is all about building relationships, so don’t just touch base and leave it at that – actually follow up and stay connected. Who you know really is as important as what you know, and job opportunities often come from the connections you make.

Taking a closer look at what you’ve done over the course of your college career, from academic classes to extracurricular activities, can help reveal skills and experience to highlight on your resume. Whether or not it seems relevant at first, the experience you already have can be applied to the “real world” in surprising ways – it just takes a little creativity. Get to know what employers in your field are looking for, beef up your resume, and get ready to rock your next interview.

Abby Perkins is the Managing Editor at Talent Tribune, a blog dedicated to all things HR.

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