‘Internship’ seems to be the ubiquitous buzz word amongst undergraduate communities, no longer contained within the somewhat more daunting world of university finalists. It’s now hardly surprising to come across first year students seeking work experience for the summer. In fact, many companies only consider students eligible for internships if they have one more year of university remaining, automatically rejecting the thousands of graduates that descend upon the UK job market every year. With youth unemployment at an all time high, internships are increasingly more of a necessity than an advantage; the competition for placements is as fierce now as the standard first-job hunt was perhaps five years ago. So are internships still worth their weight?
It is still true that internships are a good way to transition from a student environment to a professional working one and certainly offer valuable insights into business operations or a particular industry. In addition, an intern can gain new contacts, have a great selling point for their CV and could potentially leave with an offer for a full-time, post-graduate position. They might even find themselves a mentor, learn how to network effectively and leave with tangible accomplishments that prove their contribution to the host organisation.
Interest in internships, however, has reached unprecedented levels. With more graduates striving to enter the UK work force every year, budget cuts and new legislations regarding unpaid internships, opportunities are increasingly limited. Students find themselves embarking on a recruitment process almost identical to that for first-time permanent positions. The Guardian reported in November 2011 that, so far gone are the days when interns were reimbursed for lunch and travel, companies are now charging students for their months’ experience. It also revealed that selling internships had become a business in itself; the Tories last year auctioned off internships at City hedge funds. This in turn was seen as harmful to social mobility since ambitious students from poorer backgrounds could not afford to buy their way onto the career ladder.
Is it really reasonable for employees to make unpaid work experience during or after university a prerequisite for future employees? With escalating debts and living costs, many students use the summer and Christmas holidays for paid work that has no direct bearing on their future careers. In fact, the vast majority of students won’t have figured out the path of their professional life by the age of 20, and so hold off on applying until they have a better idea of what they might do. That can be a risky gamble in itself; once you’ve missed the internship boat, it’s harder to climb aboard once you graduate. One might think that leaves the option of graduate schemes. Not necessarily so. Big employers that offer the best grad schemes will often require prior experience as well as the usual 2.1 degree from a good university. For those who revert back to grad schemes a few years out of university could find that their irrelevant experience can be held against them for not showing the right kind of ‘commitment’ and ‘enthusiasm’.
Internships used to be a great way to research a potential profession or to try your hand at something new. But now the emphasis seems to be on ‘what prior experience do you have?’ Where should companies draw the line? How early are students now expected to start considering their careers? How will this coupled with the current economic climate shape the future of internships and their merits?