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  • Clare Burlingham

The yin and yang of internships

Summer is the traditional time of year that companies take on interns. As I type, there will be scores of young people dipping their toes into companies, hoping to find out which industry is for them, build networks, and obtain new skills and experience. It’s also an opportunity for businesses to meet a new generation of talent and to gain insight from a new generation of customers. In theory it’s a perfect match – it should be a win win. So what’s the reality?

According to a Harvard Business Review article from May 2021, 43 percent of interns are unpaid. Not exactly a win win. An unpaid internship is at best unfair, at worst exploitative. It merely serves to deepen existing social divisions. You won’t be surprised to hear that the HBR also found that the majority of students taking up these unpaid internships are white, male, with parents who hold a degree.

Putting the issue of pay to one side for just a moment, what about the experiences of young people once they’ve gained their internship? New Beginnings spoke to Ellie, George, Anthony and Rohan (not their real names) – all recent interns, to hear their stories.

“I tended to be given 'safe' tasks that my employer was confident could be achieved with little oversight or investment on their part” explains Anthony. “I understand why but after a while it led me to feel frustrated and bored.” George tells a similar story. “Internships often have negative connotations among my peers. Interns are the coffee person, the notes scribe etc. I definitely think they are undervalued.” Ellie summarises one experience by saying “I’m not convinced my team treated me the way they would have hoped to be treated when they were first starting out.”

Rohan tells a more positive story. “I think doing some ‘menial’ tasks early on is quite important to help understand the context of where you are working. But equally important is that you are properly listened to when you have new ideas. I was super lucky with my manager. She encouraged me to be creative and pushed me to share my thoughts and ideas.”

So how do they think it should be done?

“Interns should be onboarded effectively and encouraged to speak their mind while they have an outsider’s view and can give a completely new perspective” says Anthony. “I often think companies are scared to be told about a different way of operating, especially if these ideas come from someone that is seen as inexperienced or junior.”

George agrees. “The way in which an employer utilises their interns speaks of the maturity of the business and the values they hold. Let them share with you what they see through a new lens.”

“Give them a live brief” says Ellie. “Get them to show you their fresh ideas and fresh perspectives.”

Interestingly, the suggestions posed by our four recent interns are also in the HBR article. Their research recommends the wider use of so called “micro-internships”. These are paid, short-term, live projects that are available throughout the year. They allow students to explore opportunities beyond their studies and to learn transferable skills. They can be virtual or on site and range from a week to a month or two. Topics could include areas such as content creation, data analysis, research.

And while they’re with you - listen to them and learn from them.

As Ellie so poignantly said, “Think about what learning you want your intern to take away with them. Is it how to use some new software, how to put a pitch together, how to lead an effective meeting…or is it how you like your coffee?!”


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