Internships provide the opportunity for a prospective professional to gain the work experience needed in the industry they are aiming to work in. Internships enable students or workers to gain the work experience that is being sought after by employers. Adding ‘work experience’ to the curriculum vitae is an invaluable addition that sets a candidate apart from others who don’t have any, especially in engineering industries.
Internships are particularly famous for being used to implement more equality within industries that lack gender neutrality. Some companies believe, for example, that internships specifically designed for women, will bring more females into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) workplaces. At other times internships are used to show prospective employees the ropes and give them a taste of an industry.
Internships are usually well run programs that do help individuals become professionals. There is a problem however: instead of a win-win, companies are using internships to their benefit without giving the interns much in return.
The unpaid intern fallacy
Some interns are being exploited. In their bid to gain that illusive experience they are taking on unpaid work. In the United Kingdom, for example, it is not uncommon to find qualified graduates working full time without pay. They often have to find alternative work, at night and at weekends, to make ends meet.
The Institute for Social and Economic Research as the University of Essex have just published a report on the effect of post-graduate unpaid internships. Angus Holford, the lead author of the report, Access to and Returns from Unpaid Graduate Internships, writes:
“We show that, on average, former interns face a salary penalty of approximately £3500 per year compared with those who went straight into paid work, and £1500 compared with those who went into further study.”
A crackdown on unpaid internships has occurred in the United States. Companies are now being discouraged to advertise posts under the guise of unpaid internships that promise exposure and exposure alone. The government has taken it a step further and implemented the Fair Labor Standards Act which stipulates that an intern within a company must at least be paid minimum wage.
Students and workers are realizing that doing hard labor within companies, and not being compensated for it, is not worth their time. The rule of thumb, according to a number of engineers commenting on the matter in online forums, is never to take an unpaid engineering internship in the first place.
A system of temporary, on-the-job training positions, properly compensated, assists a student to further him/herself in an industry (and benefits the company too). Holford believes that this sort of contract is indeed useful:
“There is evidence that although workers on temporary contracts receive lower wages and job satisfaction, and less on-the-job training than those on permanent contracts, temporary contracts do act as a ‘stepping stone’ into permanent employment for university graduates.”
Rewriting study and work experience
Steve Mackay, Dean at the Engineering Institute of Technology (EIT), believes that where possible, study and work should be undergone simultaneously because practical work experience and theory-based knowledge are an excellent complement when acquired together. Steve recently outlined how the system of education and training at the EIT blends on-the-job training with part-time studying
EIT’s Bachelor of Science and Master degrees are contingent on students getting positions within a company, in an industry that will equip them with the relevant engineering skills. EIT offers school leavers and already working individuals a flexible online study option which includes a three year BSc degree followed by a two years Master degree. In Steve’s words:
“We’re hopeful that, for most of those five years you can be working, if not full time, then part-time. That’s a critical aspect today which I believe a lot of universities ignore. We need to make sure you all get jobs. Once you’ve completed your 3-year BSc with us, you can continue to study for the two years Master degree part-time, alongside full time work.”
Online learning is certainly making it more convenient for people to acquire professional development and/or a qualification. It also makes the process of learning more meaningful; theory gained from study can be implemented in the workplace and tested. Being able to contextualize the learning will inevitably enhance the experience.
It would be preferable for companies to do away with unpaid, post-graduate internships. Instead, graduates should be given a chance to prove their worth, whilst being properly compensated for their efforts. If they haven’t been able to work alongside their studies they will need the necessary mentoring to help build their capabilities on the job. And when required they can complete relevant, online courses of quality, to ensure they develop professionally.
"ABC - Australian Broadcasting Corporation." ABC - Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 27 Feb. 2013. Web. 31 July 2017.
Holford, Angus. "Access to and Returns from Unpaid Graduate Internships." By Angus Holford :: SSRN. 10 July 2017. Web. 31 July 2017.