Time to choose: job or internship?

No longer seen as a source of free labour, interns are typically paid €1,400-€1,800

Most internships are proper programmes and viewed as part of a vital talent pipeline.

Most internships are proper programmes and viewed as part of a vital talent pipeline.


A job or an internship? The choice is narrowing. In recent years, with the economy close to full employment, graduates took up internships as a way of gaining much-needed experience, but often had the option of walking straight into a job in industries with staff shortages.

This year, Covid-19 means fewer internships are available. “A lot of companies say that they are not doing them this year,” says Ruairi Kavanagh, editor of gradireland.com. “We have seen internships – which are a vital part of the transition to the workplace – either cancelled or, where possible, done online, but it’s not what the student or the employer really wants from the experience.”

Internships have come a long way from when companies used them as a way of accessing cheap or free labour, and those who attempt to exploit graduates by not paying them may face more than a social media backlash: unpaid internships are illegal.

Dr Laura Bambrick, head of social policy and employment affairs at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, advises graduates not to work for free. “You cannot sign away your right to be paid at least the €10.10 per hour minimum wage,” she says.

“These days, the vast majority of internships are paid,” says Kavanagh. “Of the companies we surveyed this year, only 2 per cent used unpaid internships. They are still out there, particularly in media jobs, while some non-profits will occasionally hire volunteers as interns, but we do not accept unpaid internships on our site.”

Lisa* applied for more than 30 positions over the summer. “I have a master’s but many of applications didn’t even garner a rejection email,” she says. “Every open vacancy seems to get hundreds of applications from graduates as well as recently unemployed or furloughed people. I got offered an unpaid internship with a great organisation. But it’s unsustainable past October as it’s eating into any savings I have. So it’s a constant calculus of weighing up the benefit of increased experience versus finding any work that will pay.”

Information from gradireland.com’s survey shows that the most common pay band for interns is between €1,400-€1,800 per month, while no company paid less than €1,000 per month.

Most internships are proper programmes and viewed as part of a vital talent pipeline. “Our survey found that 28 per cent of employers recruit graduates from those who previously interned,” says Kavanagh. “A structured internship will take you through rotations and show you as many aspects of the business as possible. They are usually closer to six months in duration and, for perhaps four of those six months, they will want you to be delivering something for the company. They are quite structured in terms of learning outputs and a graduate should leave with a solid grasp of what the company does.”

Graduates on courses where work experience is built in may have a head start in securing one of these scarce internships that provide valuable work experience.

Iseult Kelly is the industry engagement co-ordinator for the School of Computer Science at TU Dublin. “We’ve had 80 students from four courses on industry or work placement, and we’ve seen more companies hiring than last year,” she says. “They’re all paid at least the minimum wage. Everywhere has an IT department and interns can work remotely. Companies hire interns as a long-term investment, not because they need a hand. Bar one or two of our interns who worked in areas like the travel industry, most have maintained their internships through the pandemic.”

Positive outcomes

At NUI Galway, head of careers Josephine Walsh says their interns are also seeing positive outcomes. “We’ve placed 1,300 students on internships as part of their programme, in areas as diverse as finance, law and engineering. Our master’s in human-resource management had over 20 students on placement and most of these were made permanent.”

NUI Galway had 700 students on placement at the time of lockdown. “Most of them moved to remote working and only about 10 per cent had their employment terminated,” says Walsh. “It won’t be as easy to place students as it was, but a lot of companies are still doing okay: you can’t stay in business unless you can figure out how to have people working from home.”

Kavanagh says that graduates who secure virtual internships see benefits, and advises those on a job hunt to also stay connected through webinars. “They may have a block of training in the morning and be set tasks in the afternoon. You do miss the face-to-face, but a structured internship in the time of Covid can still give you a good sense of working life. Take any chance you have to build your network – even if it is digital.”

* Name has been changed

* See gradireland.com/internships for details of internships

A paid media internship opportunity

Hashtag Media are recruiting interns. “We hired in the past year and that progressed to full-time work,” says Pamela Finn of Hashtag Media. “The internships are remote – we have always worked remotely, since long before Covid. We average about two applications per day, and our internships are paid. Humour in our line of work makes applicants stand out – that and seeing their creative work and words.”