Internships are on the rise in the UK’s most competitive sectors, and are increasingly functioning as the first of several stages towards full-time work for young people, particularly graduates. Whereas previously internships allowed young people to gain an insight into a sector or profession, they have become an unstated requirement for many of the top jobs young people are now competing for.
However, it is difficult to access internships across sectors, and it is those with the connections, know-how and the financial means to support themselves who find it easiest to gain entry to this important career stage. Furthermore, those who do gain a coveted internship frequently find that rather than a genuine learning opportunity, internships involve menial work below their skill level and offer poor working conditions.
It is time to reconfigure the status of internships in the present-day labour market. Rather than employers regarding internships as a source of cheap and flexible labour, internships should be understood within the wider framework of young people’s career paths. This requires recognising both the ways in which an organisation can best benefit from taking on interns and how those interns can, in turn, gain the most from an internship.
It is possible, however, to go even further than this. If employers make application systems far more accessible, successfully diversify intern intakes, and offer genuinely high-quality experiences, internships might do more than serve as a neutral element of the labour market. They could rather become a way to improve sector-wide diversity, kick-start social mobility, and make sure employers are accessing and using the best talent available.