Internships: Modern day corporate exploitation?

The error that many organisations make is in their attitudes towards internships….

corporate exploitation

For many of us reading this, our days of being an intern are a distant memory, as you think back to the people we met, the things we had (or were made) to do, our ideals and expectations… We can reflect on our experiences and maybe share a laugh, but one thing’s for sure, each of us had a very different experience. Some of us were paid, others – shockingly in my opinion – weren’t; some were merely coffee-and-errand runners, some were worked too hard, while a few of us “lucked out,” and actually gained practical work experience that helped to kick start our career.

Personally, I think this is a topic that should be addressed. While it’s hard to “standardise” an internship programme due to various factors such as skills, type of industry, level of employment and education, the basics are clear:

1)     Internships should be paid – particularly in specialised skills-based work such as design, engineering, and more. Take a look at some of the best US internship programs on the Forbes List, and only one is listed as non-paid.  

2)     It should create value for both the employer and intern.

The Value for Employers

The error that many organisations make is in their attitudes. There has been a lot of talk about the millennial mindset and their ideals, and the belief that an intern is the lowest in the food chain, therefore, not able to add much value to an organization. It’s sometimes deemed acceptable to exploit the “intern” and simply make use of the cheap labour. Businesses with this mindset need a shift in culture, and here’s why:

Interns help with your brand: In an earlier blog post, I discussed employer branding and whether your brand is magnetic enough to attract talent. Thinking beyond the big players such as Apple, Google, Facebook, and the like, what are you, as a business, able to offer a prospective employee? For those who feel they don’t have a strong offering as an employer could find internships will provide a solution to getting talent on-board, with the ability to help grow your business. If you take the time to develop an solid intern programme, you’ll be able to conduct practical interview sessions with potential ‘talent’, pick an individual who could stand to be an invaluable member of your team, but also you get to chance to “try” them out for a couple of weeks to see if they are a good fit for your team.

Even if it doesn’t work out, remember that if you provide your intern with the best experience ever, they go out and become your brand ambassadors, even if they don’t end up working for you. They’ll be talking about how great their experience was with you and thus, making you more attractive in the eyes of other potential talent. Bear in mind that you‘re dealing with the most digitally savvy and socially connected generation, so ‘thumbs up’  social media post from them is much better for your brand than a negative post on Glassdoor.

Interns can help add value: In recruitment, we know that people are the most valuable assets of a company, it is the foundation of our industry. Remember when you were young, had ideals, bundles of energy and dreamt of changing the world? Well this sort of outlook that many businesses actually need. ‘Disruption’ is the buzzword of the moment, but in this case it makes perfect sense. Bringing in new people, brings a fresh pair of eyes and perspectives to your business, and when harnessed properly, can be used to your advantage. Sometimes the best ideas come from the youngest people in the room, and that’s what an intern can do. It’s also worth remembering that even the greatest CEOs had to start somewhere. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon started out as a warehouse worker at the very company he’s now head of, and Jim Skinner was flipping burgers at McDonald’s before running the golden arches between 2004 – 2012.

The Value for Interns

As employers, there is a duty of care to employees, regardless of the length of tenure, and this covers interns as well. Let’s start with the most basic – pay. While “unpaid” internships are not unheard of, do these programmes really provide the work experience and training that they claim to impart? Or are they just a cover for modern day corporate exploitation? Even if they are top notch, credible internship programmes, does this mean that only those from privileged backgrounds are able to accept such offers? Think about it – if a student from a lower income demographic is looking to better themselves, has the required foundation and is actually qualified to apply for the internship programme, they will hesitate simply due to financial reasons, as opposed to one who may be equally qualified but from a privileged background.

Even NGOs are now receiving pressure to start paying interns, and if they are finding the cash to do so, then big corporations certainly can. I guess the real question is, do you feel it’s fair that a student / graduate went through years of schooling to learn specialised skills, is expected to do work, without even a token sum to bring home at the end of every month? And even if they are there to learn from scratch, if they do basic work like cold calling, data entry, filing, etc., do they not deserve to be paid for the work done? Ask yourself – looking back, would you have worked for free?

As with everything, it is a two-way street, and people need to work together to bring out the best in themselves. Sure, you don’t always get it right and may stumble on the odd bad apple or two (or three or four). But such cases are rare and often easily avoided by having the right selection process.

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