Work Experience Programs: Get Paid & Develop Job Skills

Given continual messaging about the need for a college degree, some people may feel hampered in their career objectives without one. While possessing postsecondary credentials can certainly help boost employability and open doors to a wider variety of jobs, others methods exist for getting your foot into the door of a meaningful career. Work experience allows individuals with passion and determination to build skills and contacts that help them compete for dream roles. The following guide answers common questions about work experience programs, highlights 10 roles that allow individuals to learn on-the-job, and provides expert advice.

What Should You Know about Work Experience Programs?

Work experiences can help those with little-to-know experience gain the skills and knowledge needed to launch their careers. Before diving headlong into the process, however, prospective workers need to ensure they have a full sense of what these programs entail. Many require specific time commitments, so readers should review those before agreeing to any program.

How do these programs work?

Many work experience programs exist through provisions made by workforce development programs. In an effort to help students, young people, and others who might not have much career direction find their place in the working world, these programs connect participants with employers that teach them how to fulfill the role. Also sometimes known as wage-subsidized work experience, individuals receive minimum wage or slightly higher than the going rate while participating. In addition to helping those looking for work get their foot in the door, some programs may also provide additional support services and technical training classes.

Why are these programs valuable?

Work experience programs offer tangible benefits, but perhaps the most important one revolves around helping participants find work that can improve their lives and their opportunities. These programs provide an opportunity to meet with prospective employees while also taking advantage of short-term training. For those enrolled in degree programs concurrently, work experience programs can help them get a better sense of the professional path they want to follow while also earning money. While a work experience program itself typically does not provide the level of stipend or pay needed for long-term financial stability, gaining this experience often helps individuals secure jobs that meet their income goals.

Who benefits from these programs?

Work experience programs allow high school and college students, alongside those who aren’t currently enrolled, to gain entrance to otherwise challenging industries. While internships usually take place within the confines of an academic program and help students learn about a role within their selected major, work experience can be a great option for individuals who aren’t quite certain about their path but want to try out a couple options before making a decision.

How can someone get involved in a work experience program?

People can take part in work experience programs by following multiple avenues. Many local governments provide workforce development agencies that offer short-term training, career counseling, work experience placements, and post-placement support. A number of local nonprofit organizations also provide similar services, with the Louisville Urban League offering just one example of what to look for. Finally, a number of national organizations offer work experience programs in the form of service years, volunteerism, and actual placements in a number of industries and companies around the country. Service Year, for example, allows individuals to gain hands-on skills by serving those less fortunate through them. Individuals typically pick an industry or job they want to learn about as part of the application process. Meanwhile, those wanting to participate in the Year Up program submit an interest form and receive consideration on a rolling basis.

What does it take to qualify?

Qualifications depend largely on the program at hand. At the Foothill Workforce Development Board, for instance, applicants must be 18 or older and either unemployed or underemployed. Youth aged 14 to 24 can also apply to receive work experience assistance. If interested in joining Year Up, applicants must be between 18-24 years old, possess a high school degree or GED diploma, be of low to modern income, have availability five days per week for a year, demonstrate motivation for learning new skills, be a U.S. citizen or have legal rights to work in this country, and lack a bachelor’s degree. DACA recipients are strongly encouraged to take part in this program.

Industries & Careers Offering Work Experience Training

Plenty of industries offer opportunities for individuals interested in learning more about potential careers or gaining experience for the chance to do so without holding a specific degree. In addition to reviewing the industries and careers listed below, readers should conduct further research to find opportunities suited to their interests.

Diesel Technology/Diesel Mechanic

Job responsibilities:

Diesel technologists take care of machines and vehicles that run on diesel, repairing them as needed and overseeing maintenance so they continue running.

Prospective job titles:

Diesel technician, diesel mechanic

Where they work:

Repair shops, wholesale vehicle sales, freight trucking

What does the future look like?

Individuals going down this path sign themselves up for hands-on, physical jobs that require them to maintain a mastery of how diesel engines work and how to repair and maintain them. They can aspire to managerial roles after gaining experience. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects jobs for these professionals will grow by nine percent between 2016-2026.

How is this career achieved?

Most employers seek individuals with a high school diploma or GED who have some knowledge of diesel engines. While some may look for associate degrees in automotive repair, others offer on-the-job training.

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Aircraft Technology

Job responsibilities:

Aircraft technicians ensure the safe running of aircraft by repairing and replacing parts, keeping up with scheduled maintenance, visually inspecting planes for any defects, and diagnosing issues arising from mechanical or electrical issues.

Prospective job titles:

Avionic equipment mechanic, aircraft technicians

Where they work:

Airplane manufacturing plants, hangars, airplane repair centers, and airfields.

What does the future look like?

Aircraft technicians usually start out in a supervised role as they learn various responsibilities and differences between aircrafts. They may work up to a supervisory role over time. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that median pay reached $61,260 in 2017.

How is this career achieved?

Individuals can complete courses at a Federal Aviation Administration- approved school. Some employers allow them to learn on-the-job.

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Food Services

Job responsibilities:

Management-level individuals in this industry oversee the operations of a single restaurant or chain of locations. They manage and train staff, ensure customer satisfaction, procure supplies and equipment, manage payroll, schedule staff, and make sure the restaurant meets all health and safety standards.

Prospective job titles:

Food service manager, beverage manager

Where they work:

Restaurants, bars, hotels, casinos, special events centers

What does the future look like?

Individuals just starting on this path may begin their careers as dishwashers, cooks, servers, or assistant managers. Over time, they gain the experience needed to move into a more lucrative role. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that 27,600 new roles will be added between 2016-2026.

How is this career achieved?

Many restaurants hire individuals with little experience and allow them to work their way up. Others look for those with at least some postsecondary training in business, hospitality management, or food service logistics.

Lodging Services & Hospitality

Job responsibilities:

Many jobs exist in this arena to meet the needs of varied educational and experience levels. Individuals may work as maids, front desk representatives, wait staff, or managers. General responsibilities include ensuring guest satisfaction, training and overseeing staff, managing budgets, inspecting rooms and public areas, and following branding guidelines.

Prospective job titles:

Hotel manager, hotel assistant manager

Where they work:

Hotels, resorts, inns, bed and breakfasts

What does the future look like?

Without formal education, most people entering this industry gain experience over time and receive promotions and higher salaries over time. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found median pay to be $51,800 in 2017.

How is this career achieved?

While bachelor’s degrees in hotel management exist, these are not an absolute requirement of all hotels. Individuals looking to move more quickly up the professional ladder may consider taking a few relevant classes at a community college, but they can also work their way up.

Heavy Transport/Truck Driver

Job responsibilities:

Truck drivers help transport large amounts of goods long distances by driving tractor-trailers and 18-wheeler trucks across the country. They ensure all cargo remains secure, follow all safe driving standards, and communicate with clients along the way to ensure prompt delivery.

Prospective job titles:

Truck driver, long-haul trucker

Where they work:

Truck drivers’ offices are their trucks, in which they often spend long hours. They may work for a transport company and rent a truck or own their own.

What does the future look like?

Truck drivers who find they enjoy long hours on the road and can handle being away from their families are often in great demand. Their salaries typically don’t grow tremendously over their careers, but pay remains competitive.

How is this career achieved?

While no degree requirements exist, individuals often attend a truck driving school to learn how to properly handle large machinery and navigate them in congested areas. They must also possess a commercial driver’s license (CDL) which requires passing both knowledge and driving tests.

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Power Plant Operations

Job responsibilities:

Individuals in this industry work in power plants to oversee and maintain equipment, monitor the usage of electricity, maintain proper levels and flow of power, and appropriately and safely use equipment.

Prospective job titles:

Power plant operator, distributor, or dispatcher

Where they work:

Power plants, control rooms/stations

What does the future look like?

While many power plant professionals work on the floor, qualified and experienced staff are needed to manage these workers. Those who stay in the industry long enough may move into a leadership role. The median 2017 pay stood at $80,440, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

How is this career achieved?

Degrees typically aren’t required for these roles, although employers do look for workers with strong math and science skills. Most have long-term training programs for new employees.

Agricultural Production

Job responsibilities:

Whether working to raise cows, chickens, vegetables, or grains, agricultural workers oversee crop production, monitor soil health, ensure diseases are kept at bay, purchase supplies, and work with buyers to sell crops/animals.

Prospective job titles:

Rancher, farm manager, agricultural manager

Where they work:

Farms, urban agriculture centers, ranches

What does the future look like?

Depending on their experience, some agriculture workers may start out as farm hands before moving up to more senior-level positions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 2017 median salaries were $69,620, although the top 10 percent of earners made more than $135,900.

How is this career achieved?

Degrees in farm management and agriculture are becoming more readily available, but most employers do not require these credentials. They typically look for existing work experience, a willingness to learn, and a commitment to working hard.

Business Support

Job responsibilities:

As the name suggests, business support professionals provide services to their supervisors. They plan travel logistics, answer calls and emails, manage calendars, prepare and edit documents, oversee databases, and liaise with other staff members.

Prospective job titles:

Administrative assistant, personal assistant, virtual assistant, secretary

Where they work:

Offices, law firms, laboratories, remotely

What does the future look like?

Although they might start out in an assistant role, those who stay in the industry can move up to roles as office managers or chiefs of staff. Individuals in the top 10 percent of earners took home more than $62,870 in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

How is this career achieved?

Most roles require a high school diploma or GED, and give preference to those who know how to work with computers. Many offer on-the-job training that lasts one to two weeks.

Nursing Support

Job responsibilities:

Working under the supervision of RNs and doctors, these workers perform basic medical services. Responsibilities may include helping patients bathe, monitoring vital statistics, inserting catheters, changing bandages, providing updates to attending nurses and doctors, and maintaining records.

Prospective job titles:

Licensed practical nurses, licensed vocational nurses

Where they work:

Hospitals, outpatient clinics, long-term care facilities, rehabilitation centers

What does the future look like?

Positions for LVNs and LPNs offer little room for growth, but many decide to complete additional education after a few years in the field. They may pursue qualifications to become an RN or APRN. While LVNs earn $45,030 on average, registered nurses bring home $70,000 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

How is this career achieved?

Employers typically look for applicants who completed a one-year certificate or diploma program and passed the NCLEX-PN examination to receive licensure.

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Construction

Job responsibilities:

Those working in the construction industry help build commercial, residential, and industrial spaces. They create schedules, set budgets, liaise with clients, manage subcontractors, and ensure all legal requirements are met along the way.

Prospective job titles:

Construction assistant, construction manager

Where they work:

Commercial, residential, and industrial construction sites

What does the future look like?

Without postsecondary training, most individuals pursuing this path start out as construction assistants. They can work their way up to positions as foremen and construction managers, or strike out on their own and find work as independent contractors or craftspeople.

How is this career achieved?

While more and more construction firms seek individuals with an associate or bachelor’s degree in construction services, plenty of employers still hire individuals without education and apprentice them with an experienced construction manager. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that construction jobs are set to grow by 11 percent between 2016 and 2026.

Work Experience Program FAQs

Benefits of Work Experience Programs

Work experience offers myriad benefits to students and individuals who want to leverage their time in the program into a meaningful job or career. It’s best if you understand all the benefits going into the experience as this will help you better take full advantage of each one.

As discussed earlier, most work experiences pay participants a stipend or hourly wage in exchange for their work. While it may not be enough to cover all expenses or think about long-term savings, individuals should remember that they are completing the work experience for more than just money. These programs allow them to gain valuable skills for which they would otherwise likely need to attend college. By building these skills in a real-world work setting, participants can add these experiences to their resume and help themselves be more competitive. Work experience programs also allow individuals with little-to-no prior experience gain entrance into an in-demand industry. By demonstrating your willingness and desire to learn, individuals see your passion for the work and your seriousness about building your career.

One of the most valuable benefits gained from a work experience revolves around networking. As anyone looking to break into a new industry will confirm, trying to meet people who work in the types of jobs you want to be hired for can be a frustrating and disappointing process for those without any connections. By taking part in a work experience program, participants are launched into the inner echelons of a company and have the opportunity to meet fellow staff members, receive mentorship from current employees, and impress potential hiring managers with their skills. Even if the company you complete your work experience with doesn’t have an opening, you now have connections within the industry who can help introduce you to others who may be hiring.

From the Expert

photo of Elizabeth MalsonElizabeth Malson is the founder of Amlsee Institute, a licensed online college level training program for childcare providers and professional nannies. Managing over 30 college faculty member and admissions officers, Elizabeth is also a mother and a board member of several charities.


What is your answer to students when they ask you if work experience is worth it?

Many technical programs and those in teaching, childcare, and medical field require clinical hours or previous work experience so having these credentials helps applicants and graduates stand out. More importantly, work experience teaches soft skills including time management, hard work, teamwork, and communication skills. Entry-level work experience is likely lower paying and covering living expenses can be challenging.

Do some industries fit better within this model than others or is it beneficial for students across the board?

All students benefit from work experience, as being accountable for tasks assigned by others teaches learners how to be accountable and how to push through when they are assigned tasks that aren't interesting. Being able to self-regulate and understand that some tasks are not fun but the longer term result, namely a pay check or earning a scholarship, is worth the effort.

Is it best to participate in work experience while still in college or before/after? Why?

Investing in work experience should be balanced with other commitments so that high school students aren't overwhelmed and college students are able to focus on their coursework. That said, finding five hours a week to volunteer within a desired career field or commit to a part-time position is feasible with a full-time commitment to education. Gaining some work experience before or during college will help with employment after graduating. Having demonstrated an ability to work within an organization will help future employers have more confidence in hiring a newly graduated student over students who have never had to report to a manager.

In your opinion, how can learners make the most of this experience?

Early career experience is a time for students to understand their strengths and weaknesses and build their work ethic. If working retail or at a restaurant, do they enjoy interacting with people or successfully completing tasks on their own? Do they enjoy being part of a team or leading new projects? It's also a time of self-reflection. When there is downtime, do they goof off or take some initiative and help clean up? If a friend is helping themselves to the store merchandise, do they report it?


Additional Work Experience Resources

  • 5 Reasons Why Work Experience is Important: Looking for more reasons to pursue work experience? Interns in Asia offers five concrete considerations.

  • AmeriCorps: Organized by the government, these year-long national service programs teach participants job functions while also encouraging civic engagement.

  • College for Social Innovation: This program allows college students to spend 15 weeks partnered with a social innovation fellow as part of work experience training.

  • Generation: Students aged 18-29 take part in a boot camp before participating in work experience programs in five countries.

  • JOIN Inc: This Nevada-based program serves as an example of what to look for when seeking out local work experience training programs.

  • Service Year: By completing meaningful service, participants gain a wealth of skills and knowledge for future professional roles.

  • Student Work Experience Program: Institutions such as Morgan State University organize work experience programs. Students should check to see if their school offers something similar.

  • Trainee Jobs: Indeed provides a full listing of trainee jobs, meaning the companies teach those they employ how to fulfill the responsibilities upon hiring.

  • Work Experience Program: WEP exists as an internship program that helps participants gain on-the-job training.

  • Year Up: This program helps young adults find meaningful careers through a one-year work experience position.