Tuesday, 1 May 2012

An Intern's Take on Internships

pic from jimromenesko.com

30 or so years ago nobody did internships. Just ask your parents. Nowadays, it seems like they’ve completely replaced entry level jobs - in a lot of industries anyway. To get into certain jobs, internships are a necessary prerequisite, and as they’re often unpaid, how can doing the jobs for free which used to be paid be fair?

The question we have to ask is how we’ve got to this stage. Perhaps certain people started doing stints of work experience to learn about what a job is like, and then the companies cottoned on to the fact that despite having to show some eager young person the ropes, they were also getting someone who would do the menial, boring jobs that no-one wants to do, never complain about being there and make tea for everyone… all for free! And then said eager youth appeared more attractive to future potential employers, so other young people realised that if they wanted a chance of getting a job, they needed some experience too. A recent study of the 2012 Graduate Market by High Flyers research has revealed that a third of entry level jobs will be given to graduates who have already worked for the company on a placement or internship. In certain industries the figure is even higher, such as investment banking where it’s a shocking 80%.

Under Tony Blair a few years ago, the Labour government decided they wanted to get 50% of school leavers going to university. In 2011, there were over 430,000 more people graduating than there were in 2001. Blair’s plan seems to have somewhat backfired, as now almost everyone is going to university, coming out with a load of debt, and nothing much to distinguish themselves from all the other graduates looking for jobs. So what could the answer be for the ambitious graduate? Working for free, of course.
But the trouble is that not everyone can afford to work for free, and so internships can become the reserve of the wealthy. Equally, a lot of industries (for example, media) are based in London, and if you don’t have somewhere to stay, you’re faced with either an expensive commute or expensive accommodation. And realistically, how many students have the means to pay for either of those? Exactly.

There’s then also the issue of contacts. Everyone knows that getting into a company is more often than not about “who you know”. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg was forced to admit last year that his career had initially begun through his parents’ connections, despite all his pro-social mobility claims. For some of us, there’s nothing you can do about the fact that your parents aren’t the type to have spent their lives networking with, say, the directors of massive TV production companies or investment banks.
Over my teenage years I have done all sorts of different work placements, all of which were unpaid (some however, did pay towards my travel expenses, and one even paid for my lunch too – thank you, M&S HQ!) I don’t regret doing any of them, and I have learned so much. But unfortunately, like many, the time has come where I can’t really afford to keep working for free, so I’m left with a dilemma: get a job in a shop/bar/restaurant and earn money but don’t get much useful experience, or do an unpaid placement which will look great on my CV but leave me living off Sainsbury’s Basics baked beans. 

Step forward, my university internship scheme. According to the careers website, the scheme ‘offers students a chance to gain valuable work experience and develop contacts with organisations in the local area, as well developing new skills and expanding your CV.’ And the best part? Interns are paid! The scheme mainly works with new start-up companies who don’t yet have the funds to pay an intern themselves, so it’s a win-win-win situation: intern, company and uni are all happy.

So it would seem that times are finally starting to change for the better. Recently, the Royal Household advertised a position for a paid HR intern, which created something of a wave of excitement on Twitter. Society is finally realising it’s not right that the experience of working (if you’re doing more than tea runs and photocopying) is payment enough for doing so. And it’s about time too.

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