In the news
Criticism of internships has been making the news over recent weeks. They are unfair and, if unpaid, should be banned is the general gist. The internship concept was originally implemented to create opportunities for students to explore different career options during their time at university before taking the plunge. It meant that they could spend some of their holidays sampling the work experience at a bank or a newspaper with a view to following the related career path, rather than trekking round remote parts of the world. Add to that, prior to the internet, students typically would know little about the business, could add little value and, as a consequence, would be expected to earn very little if anything. That philosophy has continued.
It’s a kind of extended interview
In theory, therefore, the purpose of the internship is as a kind of extended interview. It gives a chance for the employers to have a good look at the student in a ‘try before you buy’ and the student can gain some ‘work experience’ and assess whether they like the feel of the company they are about to join. To compete for the best students, corporates threw in training courses, stints in overseas offices, networking events, you name it. It was a great idea and mushroomed into a cottage industry to the extent where now we have reached the stage where it is estimated that in the US there are around 1.5 million interns and some programmes run for over 6 months.
The chicken and egg….you need work experience
In principle internships offer a great opportunity. What is worrying is the point made by High Fliers in their 2016 survey of the graduate market: “Almost half of the recruiters said that graduates who have no previous work experience at all are unlikely to be successful during the selection process.” Basically, graduate recruiters are unlikely to hire a candidate without prior work experience. It is very difficult to understand why this is the case other than it acts as a convenient filter, in the same way as using qualifications might, or other arbitrary measures. What difference does it make if a student has carried out some menial tasks in the office, it is little judge of potential. Companies like this approach as there is less risk if they take on a graduate with work experience as the candidate knows about time-keeping, long hours, teamwork and so on. Overall, it’s a low risk option, ‘work experience’ means you’ve done it before so you know what you’re in for, you are less likely to leave and this is what HR functions are assessed on. However, how many go on to make a CEO?
A cosy situation
What has happened is that many well-connected parents have cottoned on to the fact that securing an internship is the gateway to a career in certain professions, so they take advantage of their social standing to ensure that their children obtain the best opportunities and associated career prospects. Why did this happen? Well, the big companies would have requests from senior executives of their firm or of clients. Obviously, pleasing a client by taking on their son or daughter in an internship costs nothing and strengthens the relationship, gives you something to talk about. The firm would add that the child, who would be confident and have a relatively strong academic record having been to a private or public school, was exactly ‘the calibre’ they were looking for. It also took little effort to fill an intern spot. This is epitomised in the blasé attitude of Westminster School and City AM. However, what it doesn’t achieve is to offer everyone a fair chance and unearth talent. No network, no work experience, no career. That is the point which is at the hub of it all. Internships are a really good idea but to work properly then they must be accessible to all. To achieve that companies would have to try very hard.
HUGE barriers to entry
A major issue revolves around whether companies are abusing the system and using interns to carry out the work which a paid employee would do, in effect cheap labour, or literally free in some cases. Not only is this potentially illegal, but it pushes out the students from poorer backgrounds. There have been two major changes in recent years; firstly, students now pay for their higher education and, secondly, they are expected to garner ‘employability skills’ as well as a degree. In fact, it appears that the actual degree is of less value these days. The costs involved in taking up the internship can be prohibitive. The majority of internship places in many professions are based in London, which means that young people taking up these positions who are not from the capital have to pay for the expenses of getting there and staying there for extended periods. This cost is magnified for students from poor backgrounds especially as they are now paying for tuition fees. What it means is that there will be fewer applicants from these backgrounds and so we are less likely to achieve social mobility. Businesses can still easily fill their internship slots but are missing out on potential talent.
They pull out all the stops
There are difficult decisions for the interns too. It has become the culture that students should take on multiple internships and then cherry-pick the firm which suits them best. The company has to be on their best behaviour. A recent anecdote pretty much sums it up. A family friend went to an accountancy firm for a taster to see if he fancied life as an accountant. He loved it and came back very enthused. ‘Great guys, great laugh’ he said. When he joined the firm, he lasted two months. Hated it, hated being bossed around, the long hours, the travel and, most of all, the exams. That’s the difference between marketing and reality.
And the late developers?
What about the students who might decide after the age of 18 which career option they want to pursue? They start by studying medicine but then decide that they want to go into law. Leaving it too late means that you miss the boat. By the time companies are looking for interns to fill their places, they generally have ‘target’ universities where they try to attract talent from. The Russell Group universities have a disproportionately high percentage of privately educated students, so the odds are already stacked in favour of the children from more privileged backgrounds. In order to change this we believe that the interaction with students should begin at a much earlier stage, that is, while they are at school. The process needs to start earlier.
The solution is to start early
At Kloodle, we believe that the ‘employability’ skills which new recruits are expected to have should be taught at school. Either embedded in the curriculum or separately. It’s really important. Next, firms need to be interacting with students from an early age. We have been working with a number of large organisations to set up mentoring schemes through which students at schools or colleges all round the country can interact with representatives from companies; people who work in different aspects of the business to HR. In this way students can build an understanding of different careers which may be available to them at an earlier stage and start to prepare, by taking the right subjects and building the right attributes. If demonstrating a flair for writing is a requirement to be a journalist then this is something the student can aim to evidence over time. Corporates can identify candidates for their talent pipeline and work with them, irrespective of where they come from or what their parents do. It also gives the firm an opportunity to interact with a wide range of students and identify those which they may wish to offer internships to. In this context, short internships would have real value to all parties.