Making work experience work

Published on: 2 Nov 2011

Getting a foot on the career ladder should not be about who you know but what you know, according to the Government's Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers strategy.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has urged employers to sign up to a Business Compact on Social Mobility, in which they commit to reforming their internship schemes and ensuring opportunities are available to families from all walks of life.

As part of the strategy, applications will be name-blank and school-blank to avoid discrimination. Internships will be transparent, openly advertised in schools and marketed through graduate organisations instead of sealed with a handshake through an old boy network.

Enlisted employers will also have to commit to pay interns the minimum wage or at least expenses equivalent to that amount. The Civil Service is leading by example by expanding its internships programme, and simultaneously bringing an end to informal placements so that parents with "connections" can no longer give their children an advantage.
This should be a model for businesses to follow.

Cabinet spokesperson Bob Honey explains that the impact of this business compact will not end there. He says: "We are trying to improve the outreach to local communities by supporting mentoring schemes, and we will also be targeting more than 100,000 professionals to go into schools to raise awareness about different industry roles." Several big name firms have already enlisted to this best practice of providing financial support for internships, including Channel Four, lawyers Allen & Overy, professional services firms PwC and KPMG, the architects' association RIBA, the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and the Royal Association of Engineering.
So what impact will it have on young people looking for work? Internships have to be put into context as they are only one of a number of schemes to help jobseekers to learn work skills in the workplace. These include: More than 50,000 new apprenticeships being created this year — bringing the total number of apprenticeship starts to in excess of 200,000.
Longer work experience — unemployed young people can now get a foot in the door with eight weeks of work experience without losing Jobseekers' Allowance (up from two weeks). 

Why work experience works
Critics have suggested that internships are replacing graduate jobs as employers use them as a cheap way to get staff educated to degree level.
"We see the situation through much more positive eyes," says Andrew Scherer of Inspiring Interns. "The declining number of graduate jobs coupled with increasing numbers of university leavers has turned the need for work experience into a must-have accessory for every young jobseeker these days.
"One in five employers hire interns and out of the 800 graduates we have placed in internships over the last two years, over 65 per cent have led to per-manent jobs with their host companies afterwards. The remaining 35 per cent found alternative employment thanks to the experience they had gained." 

In turn, interns get jobs
With employers complaining that lack of workplace skills are a major problem, the opportunity for businesses to "try before you buy" candidates means that those with the right skills often then secure a permanent position.
Jack Oven, 24, with a degree in digital culture and technology under his belt from King's College London, is one of those given the opportunity to prove himself in the workplace.
"I was interning at AD2ONE, a global digital sales agency, trafficking adverts on eBay's UK website," he says. "It was a great opportunity for me, and being an unpaid intern, it was low risk for the company. It has now led to a full-time contract, and they even counted my internship as the three-month trial."
Tamara Rorrison, 26, a language graduate, got her break after interning as an assistant at Viaseo, one of the world's largest professional social networks. She is now the external communications manager overseeing content in three languages.
"Being an intern gives you first-hand experience of doing the job on a daily basis — what the role entails as well as picking up industry skills," she says.

Internships can open doors
Ben Burney, MD of Sailing Stone, a finance and strategy recruitment company which houses a successful graduate division, believes that internships can also create new opportunities that would otherwise not be there.
"Our core business remains recruiting senior finance and strategy candidates earning salaries that most graduates would think tremendous," he says. "However the majority of these candidates have undertaken unpaid work at some point in their lives. An internship demonstrates a level of commitment and character that sets you apart from your peer group and enables you to contextualise your strengths in a more appropriate way when interviewing with future employers." The widening of work experience to all social backgrounds is something that has now been extended to London schools. Recently the City of London Corporation welcomed 3,650 state school pupils to attend half-day internships within the City. Decisions at this age are critical in mapping out future career paths. More than 100 teenagers toured the law firm Herbert Smith City, making them realise they needed to start planning their careers as early as GCSE choice.
Five ways to be a successful intern
1. Make sure it is career defining: treat your internship as a job, so ensure you are not stuck 24/7 doing the photocopying. Make certain the internship will help in a chosen career.
2. Know your downside: undertaking a three-month internship will allow you to budget effectively, and mentally allows you to see the finish line. Do not enter into open-ended interning agreements.
3. Get expenses as a minimum: while the moral issue can be debated at length, common sense says you should not be paying to work — get your lunch and train fare.
4. If you do not like it, leave: too many interns stay in experiences they dislike. If it is not benefiting you, just walk.
5. Be positive: you're in your twenties, now is the time to show your determination. Network, impress people and watch the doors open — moan about your problems and watch them close.