There’s more to interns than cheap labour

Recent headlines have focused on the ethical controversy surrounding internships; not only the nepotism involved in obtaining an internship in certain sectors, but also the practice of employers using them as a source of cheap labour.

Yet for the hundreds of thousands of undergraduates and graduates vying for a career in anything from politics to fashion, work experience – typically of one week to three months – is an invaluable addition to their CV.

While the benefits to students may be obvious, such as increased employability, improved communication skills and a better grasp of the realities of working life, how important are these temporary placements to business and HR?

Sarah Gordon, associate director at recruitment supplier The Sammons Group, argues that, far from being viewed as interchangeable and expendable, internships should be viewed as an important contribution to an organisation’s overall talent pool and part and parcel of the recruitment process.

“Taking on an intern should be taken as seriously as taking on a permanent member of staff and the same rigorous hiring policies and procedures should be adhered to. They are an important audience for your employer brand and you should aim to treat them with care regardless of whether they’re sweeping your floors or attending your board meetings.

“Even if they decide not to take a permanent job with you, or aren’t offered one, they will be positive ambassadors for your business for life; just as long as they’ve been treated properly.”

Social media or mobile operations

Tips from the National Council for Work Experience

  • Plan ahead – ensure there is a meaningful but achievable project that is appropriate to the skills level of the placement, normally a task requiring specialist knowledge or skills that are not currently available within the company.
  • Draw up a development plan – draft a job description or project outline, have an idea of the competencies required for the position and be clear about the job you want them to do.
  • Save money – advertise through your local university careers advisory service.
  • Be inclusive – interview and treat work-placement students just as you would any other employee, include them in all activities to give a realistic view of working for your company.
  • Provide an induction – ensure the student is familiar with company objectives, health and safety, and key staff.
  • Assign a mentor – to provide guidance and answer any questions.
  • Help to future-proof them – ensure academic and career requirements are incorporated into a development plan to help them gain transferable skills.
  • Keep them motivated – organise progress reviews and regular assessment including feedback opportunities.
  • Review performance – two-way performance reviews are valuable for the student and enable you to evaluate their impact to decide who to invite back post-graduation.
  • Beat the competition – placement schemes help gain commitment from the best talent earlier than the competition, minimising recruitment costs and mistakes.

To Chris Eccles, director of the Employment4students website, the intern pool offers far more than just youthful enthusiasm.

“Our employers tell us that interns bring in the sort of web savviness that can make a real difference to their web presence and can, in a short period of time, bring real value to any business looking to develop its social media or mobile operations.

“While a naivety about how businesses work comes as pretty standard among youngsters who may never have worked before, save for a paper round, the freshness of their approach and their understanding of 21st century technology can be worth its weight in gold,” he adds.

The prestige internships in professional services, banking and law are as sought after today as they were a decade ago and most – such as law firm Slaughter & May, which pays £300 per week to its annual intake of 100 interns – tend to pay reasonable salaries.

Small and medium-sized employers

Yet it is among small and medium-sized employers (SMEs) where interns are really proving their worth, says Sarah Kite, work experience business unit manager at Graduate Prospects.

“Offering structured work experience to students and graduates provides an effective way of boosting staff levels without the significant costs associated with traditional recruitment processes and, in some cases, has even contributed to business survival rates,” she says.

One SME that demonstrably values the annual influx of summer talent is Bradford-based Emerald Publishing, which offers a salary of £300 per week to its annual intake of five or so interns each summer.

Although many interns have little in the way of previous corporate experience, the firm’s learning and development coordinator Becky Carlisle says that their contribution is significant.

“We tend to assign them to specific, standalone projects and even if it takes them a little time to learn the ropes, they invariably make their mark within a few weeks of arriving here. It is easy to become set in your ways in a business like ours and we value the fact that these interns have a really fresh, original perspective that tends to move forward every project that they work on.”

She adds: “We see them as an important part of our overall recruitment campaign and, in most years, we will aim to offer some of our interns a full-time job.”

Vital experience of the world of work

To Eccles, the heady days of long summer vacations spent sitting by a pool are long gone for most students. “There may be a few undergraduates who still decide to spend their summer holidays on the beach in Ibiza, but, for the majority, there’s a growing recognition that to stand any sort of chance of carving out a decent career long term, it’s vital to get some experience of the world of work under your belt before you enter the job market,” he says.

“Rest and relaxation is all very well, but unless you’re going to combine your trip with a stint working in a bar, it may be a wasted opportunity as far as your career is concerned.”

Masters student Lucy von Bergen, herself an intern, is spending the summer working as internship programme coordinator at the National Trust, which, being a voluntary organisation, is exempted from paying salaries, but does offer more than minimum expenses.

Currently sifting through hundreds of applications for around 20 diverse vacancies, von Bergen notes that on past performance, a good proportion of this year’s recruits will, as with Emerald Publishing, end up staying on at the Trust permanently.

“I really hope that all the negative publicity over internships hasn’t deterred employers from offering them, because we as students will inevitably suffer if the opportunities become yet more limited,” she says.

“At a time of shrinking job opportunities, good work experience always makes you that much more employable and although I already know that my own role won’t become permanent, I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity.”

Next generation of movers and shakers

While von Bergen sees “the opportunity to develop new skills” as a key positive for interns, Eccles fears that in all too many cases the very use of the “i” word – first coined in the US more than a century ago to describe trainee doctors, but later adopted by politics and industry – is misleading.

“We all used to know what work experience meant, but in the 11 years since we’ve been around, I’ve seen more and more employers using the term internship for the most mundane of work in the belief that it is somehow more glamorous.

“If bright young people simply spend their time making tea or stacking shelves, perhaps for no pay or for minimal expenses, then the entire notion of internship will continue to be devalued by both employers and students when it should be a fantastic way of drafting in the next generation of movers and shakers.”

From an employer’s perspective, one of the trickiest aspects of internships is pay. As a general rule, say leading student work websites, paid internships receive far more applications than unpaid, even though Marks & Spencer’s head of HR Tanith Dodge is just one blue-chip HR chief who reports to receiving regular begging letters from current or ex-students who are happy to work for the chain for nothing. “We don’t take up any such offers,” she stresses.

While Eccles sees it as part of his job to “educate the many employers who either don’t realise that they are breaking the law by not offering to pay, or who continue to do so regardless of the law”, he believes that the outlay doesn’t need to be enormous to attract the right talent.

“A sum of £100 per week, which can only be a token for anyone living in London, keeps the intern under the tax and national insurance threshold, thereby minimising the cost to the employer.

“Yet more than 10 times as many students are likely to apply for an internship that offers a token wage compared to one that offers only travel expenses. I would argue, therefore, that if a company is looking to use internships as a way of sourcing good future talent, then they will only see a fraction of the potential candidates by being too mean. It certainly looks like a false economy to me.”

XpertHR recently published the results of its work experience and internship surfvey 2011. Visit XpertHR for more information.

Comments are closed.