Interns: cheap labour or future stars?

Written by: David Burrows Posted: 10/04/2017

internsIt’s hard to escape the image of interns spending hours making coffee and doing the photocopying, but companies who use them wisely could be setting themselves up for the future

How valuable a resource are interns? There are a whole host of companies that take a great deal of time and effort sourcing top-quality interns. They see it as an excellent recruitment opportunity – a way of building relationships with highly talented students who are, potentially, the future of their business. 

However, there’s the flipside – when colleges send students to companies and they learn very little; where their time isn’t structured and they just end up making coffee runs. Though hilarious to watch, the character Will in BBC’s comedy W1A paints the intern very much in this light.   

One of the problems with the term ‘intern’ is that it’s used as a catch-all for anyone who works in an office on a temporary basis – be they school leavers, A-level students, graduates or apprentices. 

Like-for-like comparisons are often misleading. For instance, a school leaver spending two weeks on work experience at a company is going to have a totally different level of involvement to someone who’s spending six months with a company and is trusted to produce reports and make presentations.  

As Sue Lincoln, HR Director at law firm Ogier explains, what companies offer depends very much on age and experience. “We have a vacation scheme that operates in our Cayman office, which gives post-secondary education students a four-week placement in the office working with our lawyers and also our specialist support functions.” 

She adds: “We also have a bursary scheme in our Guernsey and Jersey offices, again aimed at post-secondary education students, where we give financial support during their studies, career advice and paid work placements.” Further up the scale, Ogier has a Trainee Solicitor scheme for graduates, which is a structured route through to qualifying as a lawyer. 

Roles and responsibilities

Shelley Kendrick, Director at recruitment firm Kendrick Rose, agrees that the definition of an intern isn’t always clear.  And she points out that ‘intern’ is predominantly a US word and not one used widely in the Channel Islands. 

“On the islands, you’re more likely to hear the term ‘bursary schemes’ rather than intern,” she says. “I think what’s being offered is improving markedly. Companies are definitely looking more at developing their programmes. They’re more structured. For instance, set days for eight weeks throughout the year in between study at college.”

Helen Shoreson, Head of HR at Deutsche Bank, explains that the internship programme they run is not only well structured but highly demanding on undergraduates. Intern candidates go through a panel interview and if they impress, they’re accepted on the programme. “The interviewing is tough,” she says. “But we need to be confident that those we select can stand on their own two feet. 

“While they’re with us they’ll have access to senior people in the organisation. Each week we have a speaker event, where a senior member of the bank will give a talk. They gain valuable insight into what it means to be in an institution like Deutsche Bank.” 

Shoreson adds that at the half-way and end point of the 10-week programme, interns meet with their mentor for a review. “The feedback we get from interns is that they didn’t realise they would be given so much responsibility,” she explains. “Whether that be dealing with our office in the Cayman Islands or taking minutes at meetings.” 

Building a CV 

With employers increasingly looking for verified experience as well as qualifications when they hire, intern programmes can be a vital credit on a CV.  

Lois Falla, Co-founder of Orchard PR, agrees that well-structured internships are highly valuable to students and graduates. 

However, she makes the point that companies have too often exploited their interns, expecting them to work set hours, on an open-ended arrangement and for little or no pay. 

Evidently, interns should vote with their feet if their programme is offering little in the way of valuable experience but long hours and plenty of drudgery. 

“We’ve had people come to our company from another business where they weren’t being paid and just weren’t valued,” Falla says.

Which begs the question – should interns be paid? Falla believes that in most instances, the answer is yes. “If you’re talking about one or two weeks shadowing someone, then perhaps payment isn’t necessary. However, if someone’s working beyond that, and if they’re providing some value to the business, then they should be paid – and more than the minimum wage.” 

Wider appreciation
In terms of industries best suited to use interns, do any stand out? Falla says that the professions – notably accountancy and law – have always been strongly associated with internships, but she suggests the benefits of offering such programmes should be appreciated more widely. 

“At Orchard, our apprentice scheme takes an 18-year-old on a four-year contract. At the end of the four years, they’re at the same level as a graduate. We then put them through the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) qualification, which we expect all our team to have as a minimum.”

Orchard’s approach isn’t typical, as many PR or communications specialists have neither the size nor the inclination to make use of internships or apprenticeships productively.
Seeing the bigger picture is something Kendrick picks up on too. 

“There’s no reason why you couldn’t have internships across marketing and HR roles. The one benefit of internships, whatever the role, is that you get a really good look at someone in a way that you would never do at an interview.”

By way of an example, Kendrick points to a young intern who was clearly very bright but notably shy when she joined. “We weren’t sure about her because she was so shy. However, her first presentation to the team was brilliant and extremely confident. 

“It’s important to remember how young these people are, and how the workplace is completely new to them. A well-organised internship can help develop people skills massively.” 
Of course, the benefit from this is two-fold. The intern clearly develops and their abilities are identified and nurtured. The company, on the other hand, builds a strong team for the future with highly talented people who understand their business inside out. 

The X factor

Sourcing the best talent at an early stage is particularly important for the Channel Islands, as Kendrick explains. “The islands have a real brain-drain problem. We’re losing graduates at a rate of knots. We often only attract these people back when they have families and appreciate the quality of life here.”

Kendrick suggests one answer is for companies to move early and attract college leavers with good training programmes for a plethora of roles. Given the huge debt burden university students can build up, the option to stay on the islands and be funded right through training has strong appeal. And there are ways to ensure that these young people don’t feel they’re missing out by not studying overseas. 

“It’s important to get off-island experience, but companies could offer, say, three-month sabbaticals once someone has qualified. The company could be offering a lot of foreign travel anyway,”  Kendrick says. 

From a local level, another point worth considering is whether internships are even more important in ‘closed’ markets such as the Channel Islands. Ogier’s Sue Lincoln, however, isn’t convinced. 

“I wouldn’t say they’re more important,” she says. “What is important is that firms recognise the potential talent they have on their doorstep and ensure that they work with the local communities to nurture the talent and create great opportunities so that we retain these people locally.”

Lincoln concludes: “I think having a good mix of people with different experiences is also important, so an exclusive approach would be wrong.”

Five tips for employers

• As an employer, set criteria for who you will offer placements to.  
• Be clear how the placement will operate and who is responsible for making sure it achieves its aims.
• Make sure you share knowledge both ways. Whilst the placement is designed to help the intern make a career choice, businesses can also learn from the next generation. Take feedback and use it.
• Involve the intern in as much as you can, including social activities. It’s a fantastic way of hiring and being able to see every facet of your potential future employee.
• Hire the best interns as permanent employees. Do that as soon as you spot their potential.

Five tips for interns

• Research the industry – don’t go into one you know little or nothing about.
• Has the company run internships before? What was the feedback? 
• Will you be able to pick people’s brains and learn?
• Are you able to make many contacts or will you just be running errands?
• What are you going to do with the experience – what is your next step? 

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