For me, the most crucial point about last week's news on internships is this: "Internships commonly represent a first step on the ladder towards a professional career in the most competitive sectors, including fashion, journalism, politics, law, finance and the charity sector."
While unpaid internships certainly present a big problem for socially mobile students, it would be wrong to dismiss the benefits that internships can provide; internships are a mutually beneficial exercise, especially when the employer makes them meaningful, and the intern learns and develops their skills (not in tea-making for varying tastes, of course).
Social mobility is clearly a challenge, and employers have an obligation to ensure that they encourage top students from all backgrounds to apply for jobs. One way companies can do this is to partner with social mobility organisations so that they are able to reach a wider pool of applicants from all backgrounds. Such partnerships would aid in providing mentorship and internship opportunities to socially mobile students as well. This is all especially important given that so many internships are, as we know, found via personal networks - and it is these informal networks that are likely to perpetuate existing inequalities.
An internship is a great way for managers to advance organisational goals while mentoring aspiring professionals. Students bring enthusiasm, fresh ideas, lots of energy, and they can add value to an organisation's goals and interests.
I always tell my students to keep their beady eyes out for internships - they allow for the following:
- The process of elimination: internships offer young people a chance to experiment with jobs that match academic and personal interests; they give an insider's view of a career they initially thought they liked, and help them decide if they would still like to pursue it and why, or give up and move on to something else
- Added CV value: practical real world experience that employers like to see in this competitive market
- Confidence and experience: young people get the opportunity to learn more about their own abilities, learn from the problem-solving skills (and sometimes, the mistakes) of others and figure out what it is they need to work on in their studies to complement their skills
- Contacts and mentors: establishing a network of these people is not only useful for references and even future job opportunities, but also for ongoing career insight and guidance.
Although there is no obligation for a company to later hire an intern as a full-time employee, it can happen. In the current economic climate, with unemployment rates still high and competition fierce for jobs which are few and far between, internships can become a pre-recruiting tool for an employer to see how well an individual fits into the culture of the company.
To an employer, a candidate who has spent time working for a company within a particular industry not only demonstrates knowledge of the workplace, but also shows enthusiasm for an industry sector and career path. Moreover, successful past interns can soon become potential candidates when a job position opens.
While there are challenges with unpaid internships that certainly need to be addressed, internships are certainly worthwhile for both the candidate and the employer. For candidates, they provide work experience which is invaluable for those entering the job market, and for employers, they are a great way of selecting a competent candidate from a large pool of applicants in an ever-changing, ever competitive market.