Jobs initiative delivering despite hiccups


INTERNSHIPS:SEÁN KEANE does not have anything against low-paid work experience. But the 25-year-old does object to working for nothing for months on end.

That’s what happened when he availed of the Government’s JobBridge internship programme. It allows participants to complete work placements of up to nine months and keep their dole payment, along with an additional €50 a week.

“In principle, it’s a very good idea,” Keane says. “It allows you to get on-the-job experience which you might not otherwise get.”

After completing a master’s in journalism, he went on a six-month placement in a newspaper. But his claim for payment was rejected by social welfare officials three months into the internship, despite being told he was eligible at the outset.

“This made no sense at all,” he says. “It was completely arbitrary. One of my colleagues was in the same boat as me but she had no difficulty getting on the scheme. So, I ended up working six months for free . . . by my calculation, I should have received €6,448 for my internship.”

Keane’s experience is one of several stories where work experience has sometimes seemed more like exploitation. JobBridge – which has provided 9,000 internships since it launched just over a year ago – has led to hundreds of full-time posts for participants.

But it has also been criticised by many as a way of allowing highly profitable companies source cheap labour for often low-skilled jobs.

Tesco Ireland, for example – whose parent company makes billions in profits annually – used the scheme to employ dozens of shelf-stackers in the run-up to Christmas last year. In response to criticism, the company said it was not using it to fill gaps in its workforce, but giving candidates experience of a “fast-moving, modern and innovative retail environment”.

The very existence of the programme says much about the poor state of the economy and the dismal employment prospects facing many. Many jobseekers are caught in a cycle where they can’t get a job because they don’t have experience – yet they can’t get experience because they are newly qualified or are learning new skills.

Philip O’Connell of the Economic and Social Research Institute, an expert on training and employment, says research indicates that work experience placements such as JobBridge – which are close to the labour market – are “the right kind of model”. But he also sounds a warning note. “It’s also wide open to abuse,” he says. “There are many anecdotal cases of people completing these placements doing mundane, often rudimentary jobs and not learning anything. So there is potentially a big exploitation issue.” Much more analysis of the programme is needed before we can definitively measure its impact, he adds.

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton has accepted there were teething problems with the scheme – such as a failure to properly monitor the quality of jobs being advertised – but insists the model is being adapted and is producing “solid results”.

“There was a lot of criticism of it as a concept when we launched it and a huge worry about displacement. But it was created as a flexible model, so any time we’ve had criticism, we’ve addressed it,” she says.

“The initial data suggests that it has been very successful in meeting the objectives we set and it is making a real contribution to helping unemployed people re-engage with the workplace.”

Latest figures show that a total of 38 per cent of those who have completed their JobBridge placement (as of May last year, almost 2,400 had) immediately secure paid employment with their employer. The majority of those are in the 25-34 age bracket (46 per cent) and are working in small and medium-sized enterprises. Given that comparable back-to-work programmes across Europe have success rates of about 20 per cent, the results seem encouraging.*

However, at a time when more than 300,000 people are unemployed, an internship programme is just a small part of the solution. Burton says there are many other initiatives such as back-to-education schemes, trainee and apprenticeship programmes targeted at young people and the emergence of new “one-stop shops” to give jobs and training advice to the newly unemployed. “The answer is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but having many strands that cater to the wealth of human talent out there,” she says.

In the meantime, the Minister says JobBridge is being closely monitored and only jobs that give interns broad and practical work experience with significant learning outcomes are being allowed. It would be disappointing, she adds, if a focus on “a few isolated cases” was used to detract from the scheme or discourage potential interns.

If Seán Keane’s story is one of frustration, Hazel Reilly’s is one of relief. She is 22 and left school just as the downturn hit. It took her four years of job-hunting, training, courses and internships – but she finally landed her first full-time job earlier this year.

“I spent about seven months working as an intern at the Corner Bakery in Terenure under the JobBridge scheme and then was told I’d got a job out of it,” she says. “I was thrilled, because I love baking and dealing with customers.” During her internship she worked 30 to 40 hours a week. “I worked when I was sick, when I had no voice and when they were stuck. In the end they told me, ‘You’re brilliant, and we can’t afford to let you go.’ ”

Her advice to other young jobseekers?

“Just don’t give up, keep going, explore all the options available to you,” she says. “And if you find the going is tough, think of it as temporary. Just focus on the present, don’t worry about the future.”

* This text was amended on Wednesday, September 26th, to correct an error

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