I’ve heard and read a few comments recently about internships, so wanted to write a blog post on the subject, as I think it is a troublesome issue at the moment.

Self-disclosure: when i was at university I benefitted a lot from internships, mostly paid ones. I should also note that all but one of the internships i got were obtained through contacts, so wouldn’t have been available to most people.  But I’ll do my best to look at the issue objectively.

Ignoring any payment for the moment, an internship involves the intern giving time and energy and getting experience, skills, the chance to show a potential employer what they are capable of, and often a sense of satisfaction. It involves the company giving its people’s time, getting some work done, getting a chance to ‘try out’ a potential employee, and getting a good reputation for recruitment.

I’d like to note two easy-to-make mistakes when considering the previous points. First, not all internships provide same benefits and costs to the intern or company. Secondly, the benefits to the intern aren’t equivalent to the costs to the company.  For example, the chance to show what you are capable of benefits both. And the intern doing more real work may benefit both. So, there are some great win-win internships, but they do take some effort from both parties to arrange.  In my internships, I definitely considered the closer to real work they were, and the more work i had to do, the more I valued the experience.

As well as the risk of a badly designed internship in which the overall costs outweigh the benefits, sometimes even win-win arrangements can cause problems. For example, if internships are only available to those whose parents are well connected, or who can afford to work unpaid, they will contribute to a less equal world. If you cant get a job in a company or industry without an internship, it may crowd out deserving candidates who werent in the right place at the right time, and may reduce diversity of applicants.  And if interns are seen as an alternative to permanent paid positions,  they will prevent others from being fairly compensated for their work.

I believe that internships are a good thing, but in these times where millions are struggling to get work and the company is in the position of power, companies do have an obligation to manage these risks. So I’d suggest a few guidelines for companies:

. Take efforts to widen the range of applications you consider for internships
. Pay interns a fair wage, taking into account living costs, the value you expect to get from their work, and what you’d pay a starting employee. This will also help ensure your internships support rather than hurt your brand in the recruitment market.
.  Make sure there is a route to employment that doesn’t rely on internships
.  Work to maximise the win-win factor.
.  Don’t ignore the fact that an experience as close as possible to real work may provide the best internship experience for both company and individual.

And for an intern, be on the look out for ways to maximise the value of your internship to the company as well as to you (a valuable skill throughout your career).

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