Employability: Rethinking internships for maximum effect

Employability: Rethinking internships for maximum effect

A major impact of the economic slowdown has been the decreasing numbers of graduates working with large-sized employers. In the UK, for example, less than 10% of graduates in their first job are on a graduate scheme with a major employer. In addition to this, jobless rates among those with higher education qualifications for the period 2008–2010 have increased in every EU country except Germany. So how can universities respond to a changing graduate labour market to improve the employability of graduates?

The evidence that internships improve the employability of graduates is overwhelming. Internships are believed to improve the student’s self-confidence and help to develop a broader range of life-skills such as self-awareness, decision making and networking. So should higher education institutions do more to expand and develop internship opportunities? Traditionally, an internship has involved a full-time placement with a company for a period of 6 to 12 months or undertaking a 12-week work experience programme in the summer break. However, this is not a realistic goal for most university students given the higher numbers now in higher education.

Flexible internships

It could, however, be attainable if a more innovative definition of internship be adopted. A project funded by the EU and led by the University of Nottingham in partnership with Nottingham Trent University aimed at providing work experience for research students is a good example of the way forward. It provides flexible paid work experience such as working only 8–12 hours per week for a limited number of weeks on projects ranging from web development to installing renewable technologies.

One interesting example of such a project involved a postgraduate student from Nottingham Trent University who was carrying out a PhD in Forensic Firearm Identification. The student worked alongside the director, managers and activity trainees at an outdoor adventure centre to develop a ‘CSI’ forensic investigation programme for young children. The programme involved training the activity centre trainees in new skills including finger printing, soil sampling, fibre matching, plaster casting and blood sampling and the project was developed so that it could be readily adapted to different age groups.

The programme was a success, generating a return on the investment for the activity centre, whilst providing valuable experience for the trainees. The company has since taken on a second postgraduate who is currently working on a project to conduct a thorough marketing audit of the marketplace, competitors and communication channels, which will enable the activity centre to take a focused approach to further developing the business. Ian Sinclair, the director of the activity centre was very positive about the initiative: “The chance to get an independent view on an aspect of the organisation has been invaluable. The value that the project has brought to our staff trainees as well as to the services we offer has made it excellent value for money.”

Flexible internships enable business to become more productive and they can act as an engine generating new roles within organisations, providing students with a potential route to employment after graduation. Flexible internships can also provide an opportunity for students or graduates to undertake work which can be completed by use of the lap top in liaison with the employer but not fully based on employer premises, thus providing greater flexibility.

Attraction of small businesses

The challenge for higher education is how to create a more flexible curriculum to enable such initiatives to be integrated into undergraduate programmes. Historically, students are less interested in working for small businesses but this is beginning to change as they realise the greater opportunity for growth and a greater opportunity to develop a wider range of skills. An excellent example of a university which has improved its links with small businesses is the University of Sheffield. In partnership with Sheffield City Council it has created 60 paid, 100-hour internship projects with local businesses and mainly with small firms. This has given the students an insight into a working business environment, encouraged employers to recruit interns and also helped to improve graduate retention in the city.

Traditionally, internships have focused on vocational subjects such as business studies, law, the built environment and science but there is no reason why this could not be broadened out to arts and humanities. Other factors such as volunteering, teaching employability in the curriculum and workshops on job seeking skills also make an important contribution to graduate employability. However a well organised flexible internship often provides the most immediate and tangible benefit to the student wishing to improve their employability.

By Paul Hacking, Partner, Paul Hacking Associates, UK