Jane Bradley: Adoption is a way to back up interns

WE’VE all been that work experience person sitting in the corner. It’s a lonely spot, writes Jane Bradley

Being an intern in the corner can be a lonely spot. Picture: Jane Barlow
Being an intern in the corner can be a lonely spot. Picture: Jane Barlow

You desperately want to look keen, take on whatever responsibilities the company can give you – and make the most of your precious learning experience.

But in reality, you’re a burden. Everyone who actually works there is busy; you know in your heart of hearts that you’re not qualified to do the work and you get the impression that your office mates would be unlikely to notice if you didn’t bother coming back after lunch.

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I know that was true of me when on work experience aged 15 and, tasked with the great responsibility of writing a single 50-word nib (news in brief for the journalistically uninitiated) for my local paper, I managed, in my blind panic of trying to impress, to royally muck it up and inform the good residents of a small village near Darlington about “swimming classes” which were taking place in their local community hall.

Which, evidently (it was County Durham in the 1990s), was as likely to boast a swimming pool as the local miners’ club was to serve gin and tonic and craft beer. I meant to write “slimming”. Easily done, but it resulted in my first printed correction.

In short, work experience is often something which – while it can be of benefit to the CV – is more often than not, not of enormous benefit to the company.

Internships, however, are a different kettle of fish.

Unlike work experience, they are usually a few months long – sometimes full time. Companies select interns based on skills – something they have learned on a university course, or voluntary or paid work they have already done while studying. They have to go through a rigorous interview process to be selected for the post.

Adopt an Intern, a not-for-profit spin out from the Centre for Scottish Public Policy, aims to match talented interns with companies in need of good people to carry out short-term work. Most importantly, and this is the crux of my point, the interns are paid. Some of the pay comes direct from the companies, while there is also a small fund to help start ups and small charities to take on a paid intern when they would otherwise not have been able to do so. It also enables graduates from any financial background to take advantage of an opportunity that, unpaid, would have been open to only the richest applicant with a private income. You cannot eat invaluable experience.

Even companies which don’t have formal internship schemes should start looking at the value any graduates bring and remunerate them accordingly.

Earlier this week, I read a blog by the director of a regional college in the US, who was arguing that internships are the new entry level job. And she’s right. But shockingly, a lot of places still don’t pay interns. Some political parties for starters. Just last year, Alex Salmond, then the First Minister, came under fire for trying to recruit an unpaid intern to take on casework in his constituency office.

Labour wanted to ban unpaid internships entirely if it came to power in last month’s general election. But, well, it didn’t.

Internships don’t have to be with major companies. In fact, most of Adopt an Intern’s placements aren’t. Chief executive Joy Lewis tells me that the quirkier positions available in the past couple of years include a weaving and studio assistant at a weaving firm in Edinburgh and a “literary geek” to act as a PA to a Scottish author for a few months.

The first required a level of skill in weaving – the second a love of books. Often, the posts require marketing skills – or talent to create or update a website. These young graduates can actually make a huge difference to the businesses they work with.

One intern, working at a small company in the Highlands, actually managed to almost double turnover singlehandedly, through a marketing project he had been tasked to complete. This young chap was paid, but if I was him, I probably would have been pushing for a raise. That said, 77 per cent of Adopt an Intern graduates go on to gainful employment shortly after completing their placement – a placement they have been able to do because they can afford to live and work at the same time.

That says a lot. Not much to ask, I don’t think.