Saturday, 22 June 2013

Interns in the charity sector. A good or a bad thing?

There has been a debate raging for some time now about the use of interns in unpaid or low paid posts. This is not just restricted to the charity sector, but also the private and public sectors. I've been thinking about whether as a sector we should encourage or discourage internships. This is a controversial area, so I am sure not everyone will agree with my views! My motivation for writing this blog is not simply to muse over whether this is a good thing or not, but also to see if I can encourage organisations to develop best possible practice - because one thing is for sure, internships are here to stay. I'll state my view up front. Interns are a good thing only where the needs of the intern are given equal consideration to those of the organisation. 

It is a fact that there are more graduates in the workforce. In 1913 there were just 9,000 graduates in the workforce, whereas in 2012 the figure had increased to 408,000. As a result of this increase four in ten graduates are employed in non-graduate roles. It is therefore not surprising that there there is both a demand and supply for interns. Graduates want experience in the workplace; employers want to take advantage of this. In fact Employment Relations Minister, Jo Swinson has recently compiled a list of organisations using unfair or exploitative practice in relation to interns.

So what is bad practice in relation to interns in our sector? Firstly where the intern has been taken on to replace a paid post that the organisation can no longer afford. This is unacceptable and in my view exploitative. Secondly if the intern is being used to undertake boring or mindless work, that anyone could do. How are they gaining form this personally or professionally? Thirdly if the organisation provides no learning opportunities or professional or personal development. Fourthly if there is no formal beginning and end to the piece of work, and no induction. Finally where no expenses are paid and the intern is expected to fund travel to and from work or rely on the bank of mum and dad. 

So what does good practice look like. To state the obvious it is the opposite of the above! But perhaps I should be a bit more explicit. The role being given to the intern should be interesting and, if possible, project based. It should be time specific, preferably no more than three months.Objectives should be set and monitored throughout the internship. There should be personal and professional development provided throughout. This should start with an induction, during which the intern's personal needs and expectations should be identified, as should the needs of the organisation. It should end with t a final review of the intern's work, the project and what they have learnt. The intern should be assigned a mentor, or at very least a buddy, who can support them and also act as their advocate if necessary. Expenses should be paid for travel and lunch at the very least and any training should be funded. Finally the intern should have an equal opportunity to employees to apply for any internal vacancies.

I have had the experience of managing some exceptional interns and it is a joy when you find one who really gains from their experience. In many cases this has led to paid work opportunities in my own or other organisations. The charity sector is an incredibly hard sector to get into without relevant work experience and an internship is a useful way to gain this experience. I think there is a lot of ill-informed criticism of the use of internships, but I think if all employers saw them as a two-way relationship much of this criticism could be avoided.

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