Tear down this rotten edifice of internships

4 Aug

By Michael Skapinker, Financial Times, July 27 2009

If you work in the law, advertising or the media, this is the time of year when friends, contacts and people you barely know ask if you can give one of their children a job.

Not a real job – a temporary position, at no pay, as an intern.

Internships were not around when I was starting out. Summer jobs, if you could find them, were paid: waiting on tables, serving behind counters or sorting the mail.

Today, however, many young people believe they have no chance of getting anywhere without a couple of stints of unpaid work behind them.

The result is an army of young people in offices, newsrooms and recording studios, tagging along, running errands or just hanging around. Few people, whether employers or interns, enjoy it much.

In these downsized times, most of the paid, permanent staff are fully occupied. Not many have the time to meet the interns at reception, introduce them to everyone and show them the canteen. The result is that interns, nervous enough walking into an unfamiliar place, often feel unwanted.

Then there is the problem of what interns should do. Organisations have established routines. It is disruptive trying to fit someone in when they are going to be around only a few weeks. For some interns, it does not matter. Sitting in on meetings and going to client discussions is education enough. But company life is often unexciting.

There are interns who do real work. That is because some companies, having got rid of staff, use interns to replace them. Are these arrangements fair? “Of course they aren’t fair. When has working for free ever been fair?” remarked one contributor to a discussion on the Columbia Journalism Review website.

Some interns are happy to put up with unremunerated labour in the hope that it will eventually result in a paid job (an ever-dimmer prospect in US newspapers, as the discussion contributor pointed out). This is the problem with internship; the longer it goes on, the more you need parents with the money to sustain it.

But it is not only the poor who are disadvantaged by the internship system. As a report last week from a UK government-appointed commission said, such is the competition, even the middle classes now struggle. “Securing an internship all too often depends on who you know,” said the commission, headed by Alan Milburn, a former cabinet minister and working-class boy made good.

I know of fine internships, run by employers who meet candidates in advance and think carefully about what they should do. But, as the Milburn report said, the majority are poorly run.

The pity is that internships can make a difference, as a 2005 US study showed. The study, by academic David Neumark and Donna Rothstein of the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, found that programmes such as mentoring and internships boosted employment prospects of men in the “forgotten half” – those least likely to go to university – although they seemed to do less for women.

Handled properly, internships also allow companies to identify potential recruits. But to do that they need to extend their net beyond the children of the well-connected, whom they can find without any trouble.

The Milburn report made several recommendations. One was that the recruitment process should be transparent. This is surely a minimum: internships should be advertised.

A second was that there should be a “kitemark” award for schemes with a proper induction process, decent work and proper feedback on performance.

A third proposal, the removal of financial barriers for interns, goes beyond payment for work. The biggest barrier for those who live outside the cities where the best jobs are is accommodation. When Dom Potter, co-founder of Internocracy, an organisation aimed at improving internships, came to London from the north-west of England to take up a temporary position at a think-tank, he slept on a friend’s sofa. Many people do not have even that.

The Milburn report points out that universities, whose residences are empty during the holidays, could help. It also suggests a system of government-backed loans for interns.

This is all helpful, but if companies are serious about interns, they should pay them. They would certainly give them proper work to do if they did. Like all of us, companies value what they pay for.

Some may object that many companies are hardly in a position at present to incur the expense. Maybe. In that case, let them leave internships to those companies that are already making the commitment.

The hodgepodge system we have now demeans nearly all those who touch it. It is time to tear it down and start again.

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