Interns are the future for the third sector

Range of skills offered and delivered by Scotland’s students matches the needs of a diverse marketplace, writes Martha Caddell

Young people are finding internships increasingly important to their future careers. Picture: Getty
Young people are finding internships increasingly important to their future careers. Picture: Getty
Young people are finding internships increasingly important to their future careers. Picture: Getty

As SUMMER draws to a close, the 2015 cohort of interns on the Third Sector Internships Scotland (TSIS) programme are completing their work with third sector organisations across Scotland. From organising the first National Sitting of the Children’s Parliament to producing a film on mental ill-health and recovery, the variety of internships reflects the diversity of Scotland’s third sector and the broad range of skills and expertise that organisations need.

Skills and expertise that Scotland’s students are capable of delivering and, indeed, delivering with an energy and drive that has surpassed many employers’ expectations.

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Over the past five years Third Sector Internships Scotland – a nationwide programme led by The Open University in Scotland, Queen Margaret University and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations – has grown to be a leading example of what can be achieved through strong collaboration between universities and employers.

It has offered students at all Scottish universities the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations through paid, supported internships. Demand has been high: more than 8,300 applications were received from students for the 349 positions offered. Employer interest has also been strong, reflecting the value host organisations placed on interns’ skills, and the energy and fresh ideas they brought to projects. The impact, particularly for small and micro organisations, has been hugely significant. Looking back over the development and growth of Third Sector Internships Scotland, I am struck by five key messages from interns and employers.

• Make internships meaningful

Internships should not be about making tea and photocopying. They must be real jobs, with real responsibility, if students and their host employers are to truly benefit from the experience. Bringing a student in to do a clearly defined piece of work that they can own can really enhance an organisation’s capacity. It is only through such meaningful work that a student will fully be able to showcase their skills and enhance their employability.

• Ensure fair access to internships

Internships cannot be the preserve of those with the right contacts or those who can afford to work for free. The TSIS experience has highlighted the importance of a fair and open recruitment process, and providing fair pay (at the Living Wage) for fair work. This allows organisations to access the person with the most appropriate skills and expertise for the particular post. Open recruitment also means students can develop their application and interview skills and gain valuable feedback. The TSIS team offered personalised feedback to all 1,275 interviewees and provided guidance and support to all applicants. Internships are also not just for young students taking their first step on to the career ladder. TSIS interns have come from diverse backgrounds, with career returners and career changers using the opportunity as a springboard into working in a new sector.

• Support employers to support students

Many employers, particularly smaller ones, appreciate advice, guidance and practical support to help them develop the confidence and skills to host an internship and maximise the benefits of such an opportunity for them and for the intern. Many organisations have used TSIS to “test the water” to see if they have the capacity to take on a new employee. Others have appreciated the practical advice and guidance around recruitment and pointers to how to initiate work with universities. Enhancing employer skills and capacity can fit neatly with the development of meaningful internships for students.

• Partnerships work

Building strong and dynamic partnerships between the third sector and universities has been critical to the success of TSIS. Working at national scale, providing internships open to all students at Scottish universities and to organisations all over the country meant drawing on the expertise of a broad range of professionals. From careers service teams leading bespoke sessions for interns to administrators ensuring third sector organisations’ payrolls ran smoothly, everyone played their part. Partnerships matter, from a strategic to a very practical level.

• Third sector careers a first choice for many

Most powerfully, TSIS has opened up opportunities for students to consider what a third sector career could look like. Students have been able to explore the variety and dynamism of Scotland’s third sector and to see how their skills and expertise can make a real difference; for many it has led to dramatic shifts in direction and career choice. Universities and third sector organisations must continue to creatively work together to harness and amplify students’ enthusiasm to ‘make a difference’.

• Dr Martha Caddell is depute director (learning, teaching and curriculum) at The Open University in Scotland