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Internships should be higher on the DEL agenda

A movie that we may or may not remember a year from now
Emma Cowan on May 7, 2014 - 8:20 am in In Depth

Thirty years ago internships were barely heard of but now they are an increasingly important part of the young graduate’s search for a career. Some say internships are little more than slave labour and exploitation, others that they offer interns a valuable insight into work within different careers and a first step on the recruitment ladder. Which is it? Emma Cowan examines the pros and cons and talks to one employer and one student with firsthand experience.

An internship is a method of on-the-job training for white collar and professional careers, similar in some ways to modern apprenticeships but, unfortunately without the oversight, regulation and pay that an apprenticeship offers. Internships may be paid or unpaid and, where payment is offered, it is often at sub-entry level rates.

The word ‘intern’ was first used in the US to describe junior doctors in the 19th century. Its name, if not its salary, was adopted in the 1930s by a scheme to provide volunteer work experience with politicians in Washington DC and the concept of internship grew from there.

In the UK, the interest in offering internships came with the explosion in access to higher education and the real boom in offering this type of work experience dates from 1997, when Lord Dearing’s report into higher education called for some form of work experience to be undertaken by each undergraduate.

In the US, internship really has become a way of life. In 2013, two-thirds of the graduating class had completed at least one internship and about 46% of employers had structured internship programmes in place – that figure is expected to rise to 56% this year. Statistics for UK internships are scant – a reflection of the fact that they are not regulated or routinely monitored, but the Higher Education Statistics Agency is able to report that, of students graduating in 2012, only 2% were in internships six months later. However, it also reports that some 21.7% of graduates who were in employment six months later has been taken on by an employer with whom they had previously had some kind of work experience.

Pros and cons

For the employer, the first and most obvious benefit is cheap labour, which may be a vital part of allowing company growth, perhaps leading to a full time position for the intern. In addition, a well-structured internship programme can provide an ongoing supply of potential full time employees. This will help the employer to better evaluate the candidate pool and spot the top performers. Many employers report better experiences and higher retention levels with employees who have interned compared to those who haven’t.

For students, an internship gives a welcome passageway into the world of work. Even if the student goes not gain a full time position with the company, his or her CV will be enhanced and they make better prospective candidates for other jobs by virtue of having built up their experience. What’s more, an internship offers the opportunity to evaluate, not only the company, but also the career path and whether this is, after all, the right choice for them. Of course, this will only happen if the company gives the intern the opportunity to really work in the business, instead of just doing clerical jobs. Warwick University’s Professor Kate Purcell, an expert in the graduate labour market, puts it in a nutshell: “Employers are remarkably good at complaining about highly educated kids who don’t know anything about the real world, but less good at actually getting students in to do structured work experience that actually teaches them something.”

The biggest benefit for the employer is, of course, the biggest negative for the intern – little or no money. Some internships are paid, particularly those in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) but many are completely unpaid, which leaves the student depending on parental support and, most likely, taking on a second job to try to fund the work experience.

In England, where internships are more common than here in Northern Ireland, this has lead to an elitism in the world of internships, which can be seen as only open to those whose parents are wealthy enough to fund them. Becky Heath of the social enterprise Internocracy believes those doing unpaid work experience are being exploited and should get the national minimum wage. She also questions the internship’s ability to open up access to careers: “In reality, they’re [employers] treating internships as a first stage of recruitment, but they aren’t doing anything to widen access opportunities. As a result, occupations like journalism are becoming increasingly middle-class professions.”

The employer perspective

Local businessman Gregory Bradley of www.efpgyms.comis just about to take on two interns. It’s a small company – three employees – but one that has great growth potential and Gregory sees internships as the best way to fund growth and offer genuine experience and job prospects to the intern. “Our team is very stretched so we have decided to add two new positions to help deal with our current workload. We’re young, but we have quite aggressive growth plans for 2014 so it is the most logical solution.

“I think it is a great route for both the employer and the intern. I did a year’s placement at the University of Ulster whilst I was studying there. I was very grateful getting that opportunity as it was pretty much at the height of the downturn but it confirmed to me that I was never going to be an employee for another company.”

Gregory is hoping, however, that he will garner a full-time employee from the internship process. He has gone for an unorthodox, social media recruitment drive, linking back to his website and a downloadable/uploadable application process. He had 50 applicants within 24 hours!

Gregory is looking for interns with passion, drive, commitment and ability – no small wish list. “I need a very driven individual who can work as part of a team. Attention to detail is one of the key attributes I have asked for which is why I have made applicants jump through so many hoops during the application process. I’ve taken more of an American approach to recruitment and I hope it works to find the best candidates.

“The main role is for the marketing / admin assistant. They will be doing a wide spectrum of tasks from dealing with customers to putting marketing materials together. A lot of training and education will also be provided on this role. I know many companies are scared to invest time and money in training for their staff in the fear that they will leave them afterwards but I take the view that an unskilled employee will cost much more in the long term than having a skilled employee. We want to empower our staff and allow them to take initiative and be innovative.”

When it comes to the ‘to pay or not to pay’ debate, Gregory has strong views: “I don’t believe in people working for nothing. The successful applicants will be fairly remunerated for their time. I feel it is borderline unethical to not pay a qualified person for a role on a long-term basis. Too many companies are abusing their power and playing on people’s desperation for work. We are only a tiny company heading into our third year of business with very limited resources but we have no problem paying someone for their hard work once we know they are the right person for the job.”

From intern to employee

Calum Lennon completed a BSc Hons Marketing degree at the University of Ulster and entered the ‘Professional Experience Programme’ run by the university. This opened up the opportunity for a six-month internship with the Smart Business Show, which Calum got through the standard application and interview process.

Calum Lennon

Calum Lennon

Calum explained: “I decided to go down the internship route as I felt it was a greater opportunity to get a job. I was applying for jobs and the competition was very high, however when applying for an internship I knew I would be up against other graduates, therefore thought I had a greater chance of succeeding. Because my internship was for only six months, at first I expected to gain experience and because I had obtained my degree, I expected to get given some responsibility where I could learn. However after roughly two months into my internship my goals changed to trying to get a permanent job with the company.

“My first expectations were met in that I gained relevant experience right away. I was given the opportunity to build on my digital marketing theory from university and managed all forms of our online presence from social media to our blog website, the Smart Business Brief. To be honest I gained more than what I had expected in the form of new skills and learning how various people do business. So over my six months, my internship has been very positive. One thing I was not used to before was that the rest of the company were older, however I was treated brilliantly and as an equal, not just an intern.”

Calum was paid, not by the company but by the University at a rate he said was “The rate of pay was not good, but it was enough to live on. I had to cut back on some things to make it work however I did not need to get a second job.” At the end of the internship, Calum has been offered a full time position with Smart Business Show as a Business Development Executive.

His overwhelming response to the internship has been positive: “Yes, I have gained a permanent job, which I love and I don’t think I would be in the position I am now in without getting the internship opportunity. In my case my overall experience of the internship is very, very positive. Even if I was not offered the permanent job, I would have gain invaluable experience. I would highly recommend other graduates make internships a must apply. It is a brilliant step ladder to get your foot in the door.”

Finding opportunities

Calum’s view of internships is very positive and he is quick to recommend the route to other students. How easy is that, however, where are the opportunities?

Alan Shannon, former Permanent Secretary for DEL points out that the onus is on our local universities to promote and facilitate internships. “DEL’s Higher Education Strategy says it expects the universities to provide work placements for all its undergraduates,” he commented. “ It is not prescriptive about how this is done. There is such a range of options.

“For example STEM students (engineers and doctors are good examples)  acquire knowledge and specific skills which are immediately relevant in particular workplaces and there are long established arrangements. Language students seek overseas experience. Teachers often look for voluntary work abroad with young people. But for those studying liberal arts or humanities the value is more intellectual development, problem solving, lateral thinking, skills with words and people. The opportunities are more varied but the value harder to define. Should the student who is reading medieval French literature with a view to a university lectureship be obliged to stack shelves in B&Q?

“The DEL objective is partly to meet the employer criticism that too many graduates are not job ready (although employers have a role in this too) and to give local graduates a bit of advantage in the marketplace.”

Certainly, Queen’s University claims that it is working to meet DEL targets and has 70% of its undergraduates exposed to placements at the moment. Placements and internships are very different things, however, and a one week stint in an organisation will yield little benefit in comparison to a 6 or 12-month internship.

So, what’s next?

It seems that, following in the footsteps of the Americans and the rest of the UK, internships will become more common here. They can be a useful tool for both employer and intern and, as Calum points out, even if they do not lead straightaway to a job, they provide invaluable experience.

Researching this report, my issues are twofold but both linked to the lack of oversight that exists in Northern Ireland at a strategic and operational level. Programmes that are or have been run by the public sector, such as the Graduate Internship Programme or the Professional Experience Programme do carry the requirement for some payment, but this is not extended throughout the private sector. Apprenticeships across the board are guided by government policy and rates of pay are set – why should our top graduates fare so much worse? Will the lack of structure and the latent potential for talent exploitation force even more of our graduates to leave for greener fields? I agree wholeheartedly with Gregory’s position that not paying interns is ‘borderline unethical’.

Furthermore, opportunities provided by public sector appear to be exclusively for graduates of the Northern Ireland universities. There is no parity for all graduates and those who have left Northern Ireland to take a degree have little or no incentive to return and invest their skills in our economy. The same opportunities appear not to be open to them.

To my mind, the only way these issues can be addressed is for the Department of Education and Learning to take a stronger lead on the issues. Our graduates are a valuable asset and we need to nurture their opportunities to grow within our own economy.


Further reading:

12 Steps to Setting Up an Intern Program


careers internship


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