Defining Work Experience in South Africa

Are we all on the same page when we talk about work experience?  Terms we often come across in this context are work experience, vacation employment, and, as one of our colleagues terms it “all the ships” i.e. internships, learnerships, traineeships and apprenticeships.  What do we mean by these different types of programmes and can we agree on a common language around work experience?

Work experience is generally defined as a period of paid or unpaid work activity that provides the participant with opportunities to acquire training, knowledge, and skills to increase their employability or provide them with exposure that will help them develop an understanding of different types of work to help them determine what their preferences are.  Work experience may take different forms, for example volunteering, work shadowing, vacation employment or internships and these may have slightly different nuances.  Let’s look at each of these and unpack what they are.


Volunteering is getting involved in work or projects on a voluntary basis – usually community-based and with philanthropic intent and, by implication, without remuneration. There are, of course, benefits to be derived by the volunteers themselves, in terms of exposure and experience, depending on the nature of the project for which they volunteer.  So, if a student has volunteering on their CV, they will generally have learned transferable skills such as teamwork, problem solving, communication skills and collaboration.  They may also have acquired some technical skills, depending on the nature of the project for example, they may have learned how to paint walls or lay bricks, or they may have learned how to stratify targets and raise funds. 

Work Shadowing

Work shadowing is a type of work experience in which there is probably little transfer of skills or knowledge.  Shadowing means spending time with and observing another person’s work in order to gain a deeper understanding of what a particular role entails.  This is generally for a short period of time and will be unpaid.

Vacation Employment (known as vac work)

Vacation employment gives both students and employers an opportunity to evaluate one another more closely, a “test drive”.  Typically, students are recruited for vacation work during their penultimate year of study, although this varies for different industries and disciplines.

Paid employment is usually offered during the mid and/or year-end vacations in June/July and December/January.  Periods of employment vary between 2-3 days and 2-4 weeks, depending on capacity and business case needs.  Vacation employment will often consist of a combination of classroom type or digital learning, and some exposure to entry-level real work and tasks.  There will usually be some transferable skills learned during vacation employment.

Some employers offer programmes during the vacations which they refer to as a “Summer School, Summer Internship, Winter School or Winter Internship”.  Or they may offer “Virtual Internships” that take place during university vacation times.  These internships may or may not be remunerated – in some cases a student’s attendance costs are covered.


This is where our definitions become somewhat “grey”!  An internship is generally an extended period of paid work experience lasting longer than vacation employment – say three to six months or up to two years – but with a defined start and end date.  However, since Covid the term “virtual internship” has taken on a different meaning and is more like vacation employment, lasting between one and two weeks but in a virtual format.  The purpose of an internship is usually to impart practical on-the-job training, but the duration and content of internships varies significantly.


A Learnership refers to what is normally a fixed period spent gaining a combination of practical experience together with theory.  A learnership is NQF-based and learners will receive accreditation for standards successfully completed.  Learnerships are regulated and governed by the Skills Development Act of 1998 and the programmes are intended to address the skills shortage  in various industries and empower individuals with the necessary knowledge and experience to increase their employability. A Learnership entails an agreement between a learner, an employer, and a training provider. In some cases, learners may receive a stipend or allowance during their Learnership to cover their living expenses.   An example of a Learnership is the Chartered Accountant training programme completed by trainee accountants and registered with the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants as part of the requirements to qualify as a Chartered Accountant SA.


This is the last of the “ships”!  An Apprenticeship is a structured, NQF aligned training programme for a specific trade or craft and is undertaken to gain the knowledge, theory and practical skills required to complete the prescribed requirements to qualify in the trade in question, under the supervision of an artisan.  Apprentices are employed through a contract signed with an employer and a training provider. Apprenticeships usually last between three and four years and after completion of their programme they can apply to do their trade tests to be certified as an artisan.

Work Integrated Learning (WIL)

(Previously known as cooperative education or In-Service Training)

Work Integrated Learning aims to consolidate theory and practice through gaining practical experience and application of academic knowledge – some courses provide for specific, compulsory periods of work integrated learning as part of the curriculum, which could be up to 12 months.  The most common types of WIL require students to spend time in a workplace learning skills and doing tasks related to their field of study under the supervision of a mentor.  In most cases a contract is signed with an employer to complete their WIL. Examples of courses that have a WIL component are Architecture, Psychology, Engineering and Teaching.