Should I take a job or an internship?
Internships can be an effective way to gain work experience and increase your employability – but is there a downside?
In a variety of industries, it’s now almost an expectation that job applicants will have accrued at least some experience, and internships have become a controversial part of this mix. Photograph: iStock
Education takes long enough, with most of us now spending at least two decades of our lives in education by the time we get through school, college and a masters. And that’s before the need for continuous professional development and upskilling is factored in.
In recent times, there’s a new factor in the mix: internships. In a variety of industries, it’s now almost an expectation that job applicants will have accrued at least some experience, and internships have become a controversial part of this mix. While most are now paid, the money isn’t always great and some internships still don’t attract a salary. Internships can effectively delay a graduate getting into the workplace and earning money, so are they really worth it?
Mark Mitchell is director ofgradireland.com,which also runs the annual Graduate Careers Fair. “Internships can be a brilliant route to graduate programmes for those graduates who do go to work in graduate programmes, and structured internships provide an opportunity to work on real, interesting projects and contribute to the business, giving the intern a meaningful experience,” he says. “The majority of companies we surveyed do provide a salary. With up to 50 per cent of graduate recruitment intake coming from those who did an internship with the company, so they can be a route to employment – and the big graduate employers are using them to identify future talent. This works both ways: they also allow students to road-test employers.”
But there’s a big difference between a structured and paid student internship and the more ad-hoc “work experience” that can go unpaid, says Mitchell. “You shouldn’t worry if you don’t do an internship. In most cases, there is gain, but they are not mandatory. There are much greater numbers of students leaving college and going to work for small- to medium-sized enterprises [SMES]than there are of those going into graduate programmes. Yes, an internship will make you more employable, but so will other experiences: jobs, travel and volunteering – all good on the CV and all ways of showing an employer the skills and attributes you can bring to the workplace.”
Mitchell says his company does not support unpaid internship and that he would not advocate or advise people to work for free as a means of gaining experience. “We do hear of creative industries asking people to work for free, for ‘exposure’ but people should be rewarded for materially significant work.”
Oisín Vince Coulter, president of Trinity College’s graduate students’ union, says graduates, especially those with a masters or PhD, should be paid a proper wage for their work and that internships which only offer an “allowance” for food and travel make it impossible for many young people to afford to pay the rent, especially in Dublin.
“There’s also the issue that there is a lot of nepotism and that people in certain industries – especially journalism and law – get internships based on who they know rather than their skills. Some are great and provide three to six months of experience and pay but they’re not the rule. Large companies have decent, structured internships but we have heard of plenty of cases whereby interns are used to make coffee and move documents. However, for a lot of people who cannot afford to spend a year bouncing between internships – and it can be a full-time job trying to get onto one of these coveted spots – doors are closed. Internships are too often used to drive down a company’s costs and to supplant entry-level jobs. It’s not a radical or revolutionary principle that you should be paid at least minimum wage for carrying out work. It is in the nature of companies to limit expenditure and maximise money, so we need Government regulation to ensure fairness.”
Mitchell advises graduates to proceed with caution. “The number of unpaid internships is falling and the landscape is better regulated than it was. But if you are going into an unpaid role, you have to do it with your eyes wide open, and be clear on why you are doing it and what you will get from it.”
Readers’ internship experiences
We asked people on Twitter to share their experience of interning and were inundated with responses. Some interns had horror stories and felt their internship was designed by the employer to exploit free or cheap labour, but others said their employer had provided them with invaluable experience and had treated them well.
Based on the responses received, media, PR, cultural organisations and charities are most likely to use unpaid interns.
We’ve included a small selection of the responses here:
“I did an unpaid internship in 2013 in a tiny non-profit which is a wholly different experience than doing it in a for-profit, because they literally cannot pay you. So I paid my way by tutoring in the evenings. I had a great time and it shaped my career, but I was only able to do it because I am privileged.” – Bella
“I did a part-time media internship unpaid for three years. It didn’t give me the opening into media I had hoped for. It wasn’t worth the journey or money it took me to get there and I was using what little pay I had from a shop job to make my way there weekly.” – Shauna
“I did the paid Mountbatten internship programme in New York and it was the best year of my life. The work was good and the life experience was seminal. I’d recommend it to anyone.” – Sabrina
“I did a barely paid nursing internship. It was necessary to complete my degree but it was basically a cheap way for the HSE to fill vacancies.” – Katie
“Very often internships dangle a step on a career ladder like a carrot on a stick: they’re never going to give you it because they run on underpaid – or often unpaid, although I was on minimum wage – labour. The idea that you’re going to gain valuable on-the-job experience, which once acquired will justify paying you the minimum wage, is a bit of a joke.” – Paulie
“I’ve done two unpaid internships. Even with the recession being over, this is the route for getting into PR. I was lucky enough to just about be able to afford it, but it was a massive struggle to even be able to buy clothes for work. I did long hours. The internship culture in PR results in a massive lack of diversity and, because of this, the PR industry in Ireland is extremely middle-class.” – Anonymous (name known to this journalist)
“I had a paid internship and then got kept on with the same company. I got it straight out of college and am now working full-time in the industry I studied.” – Alice
“In every unpaid internship I have had, my duties have usually centred around hospitality as opposed to any of the skills I acquired in college. I’ve cried. I’ve gone a year without a lunch break. I’ve unblocked toilets in the face of a lack of respect and a general rudeness. I once had to dispose of a decapitated cat from a gutter. Unpaid interns are treated like peasants. Now I work in retail just to make ends meet and pay back the debt I put myself in. The Government should regulate internships, especially in the creative sector.” – Anonymous (name known to this journalist)
“Over 12 years ago, I was forced to intern for free in order to gain commercial experience in the world of User Experience (UX). It felt impossible to ‘get in’ with particular niche and cliquey groups, who mostly were agencies that took advantage of my passion and drive. Now I am a relatively well-known thought-leader and mentor in the field of UX, I feel strongly that no one should ever have to work for free and brands are morally and ethically questionable, in my view, to do so. When hiring for either one role or several, I look for passion first and foremost in a candidate applying for an internship and always draw back to my own, personal experiences, because starting out is hard. I also founded www.uxlingcorner.org with this in mind.” – Leah Ryz
The evidence on internships
This year, gradireland.com carried out a survey on internships, with employers asked what percentage of their graduate intake had previously completed an internship within their organisation. Noting the significant caveat that it is a survey of 105 specific graduate employers, their graduate salary and graduate recruitment trends survey found that:
80% of graduate employers offer internships
95% of these are paid internships
52% of internships pay between €1,400 and €1,800 a month
7% pay less than €1,000 a month
19% pay more than €2,000 a month
55% of these are internships for students still studying, run either as a placement for part of their course or a programme run during the holidays while they are still studying
38% of graduate employers offer internship opportunities for both undergraduates and graduates
54% of graduate recruiters say they recruited up to 50 per cent of their graduate programme intake from those who had completed an internship programme with them
Gaining work experience
Boosting your CV
Working in a chosen field
Forming a network
Learning beyond your field
Not an equal member of staff
Low earning potential
Narrowing of opportunities
Possibility of having to do menial work