Internships can deliver much more than just the tea

From Monica Lewinsky and that infamous cigar, to the ongoing debate around cheap or even unpaid labour, the subject of internships can be controversial. There have been plenty of headlines in recent months about companies exploiting interns by paying them a pittance or nothing at all.

A September 2013 survey by jobs website Monster found that four in 10 interns didn’t receive the minimum wage – despite the fact that 87% of employers felt interns made a positive contribution to their business. Even the Prime Minister has been drawn into the debate. In a 2011 interview David Cameron said he was comfortable offering internships to the children of friends, but more recently he has backed calls for greater fairness and more rights for interns.

The amount of negative media coverage surrounding internships may well have discouraged many businesses in the print sector from going down this route. Yet given the high levels of employer satisfaction recorded by the Monster research, perhaps not using interns is a missed opportunity.

BAPC chairman Sidney Bobb says the subject of interns has never been raised by his members. In his view, the use of interns is not widespread in print because the sector is mainly made up of smaller companies that tend not to have the same requirements for interns as larger organisations.

However, there is a growing appreciation that internships may be a way of unearthing fresh talent for the industry. “Internships should be for students and postgraduates and can be beneficial to intern and company alike,” says George Thompson joint managing director at recruitment company Harrison Scott Associates. “Students, whether working as an intern as part of a degree or as a postgraduate, are there to learn, therefore should be allowed to shadow an existing staff member to learn the job, or work under a mentor who helps them develop professional skills.

“Too many young students who apply for a job are turned down due to lack of experience. Internships give them the chance to get some on-the-job experience as part of course work, or as a postgrad. It could also give them the chance to get their foot in the door of a company, a bit like an apprenticeship. In training these interns, you may be mentoring a future star for the company.”

Some employers will concede that one reason interns are advantageous is that they provide low-cost recruitment and staffing. However, many employers also see them as an opportunity to access extremely skilled individuals who can be developed and mentored within the workplace. Many may have a natural flair for problem-solving and thinking outside of the box that may provide a huge long-term benefit to a business and their attitude may rub off positively on existing personnel.

A good fit

Bringing a young, well-educated person into the workplace need not be a short-term option. If the fit is a good one, it may be that you have identified someone able to progress within your business. At the same time as providing them with experience, smart employers may be able to mold interns to an extent and assess whether they may fit into a team or organisation.

But what are the potential legal pitfalls employers need to bear in mind? For a start, in the eyes of the law ‘intern’ is a woolly concept. A key question must be addressed: is the intern someone who is merely gaining valuable work experience, or are they actually doing work for which someone else would otherwise be paid?

Employers need to tread carefully as the difference is crucial.

“An individual classed as a ‘worker’ is entitled to be paid the National Minimum Wage,” explains BPIF head of legal and HR Anne Copley. “An unpaid, or underpaid, intern who can be legally identified as a worker can take a company to an employment tribunal for up to six years’ of unpaid wages. And the company can be fined up to £20,000.”

Moreover, workers are protected by anti-discrimination legislation. For instance, if an intern feels badly treated because of their age, sex or race, then they can bring a claim for discrimination in an employment tribunal.

Whether an intern is a worker with such rights can only be determined on a case-by-case basis. However, employers are likely to be on safe ground if the person in question: is only doing a few weeks’ internship; is simply shadowing others, rather than carrying out their own work; can come and go as they please; and is not doing work based on special skills that they possess.

However, an intern may be considered to have attained the status of ‘worker’ if: their placement lasts for longer than a few weeks and/or may lead to an offer of permanent paid work; the work they are doing is ‘real’ work, which otherwise someone else would be paid to do; the company is relying on the intern’s specific skills, based perhaps on their qualifications; and there are some obligations from both parties about providing work and being at work at specific times.

“Recently, an employment tribunal found that a 21-year-old working 10am to 6pm on a publisher’s website for two months was a worker and should have been paid,” says Copley. “She was responsible for managing a team of writers, scheduling articles, training and hiring new interns. That is quite high-level work, but it is equally possible that more mundane tasks such as stuffing envelopes could still amount to real work.”

This doesn’t mean that companies should curb the generous impulse to offer someone the chance to gain experience at the coalface. But it does mean the management of any internships must be properly thought through. Obviously, this extends to being clear on why you are using interns in the first place.

Putting aside the cynical view of cheap labour, typically there are two key drivers on interns, believes Mercury Search & Selection managing director Dani Novick. “The first is as a kind of extended interview or ‘try before you buy’. This would give the employer time to see what a potential employee is actually like and is really beneficial for people at the beginning of their careers when they have little or no working track record as evidence.

“The second perspective is as a means of showcasing your business to prospective employees and can be particularly useful in areas where there isn’t a large talent pool to draw from. Engaging with schools and colleges to provide internships that attract local people to the sector and the firm is a long-term strategy, but can be more cost-effective than trying to relocate people.”

Raising print’s profile

For today’s digital-savvy youngsters, print may not be their first choice of career. However, Novick says that programmes such as PrintIT! and Starpack are a great way of engaging with schools and colleges and if employers follow this up with internships it can highlight the dynamic and innovative nature of the industry. “If you consider the range of job roles and the breadth of the industry from basic print, through to cross media campaigns it really has enormous opportunity,” she says.

Harrison Scott’s Thompson agrees. In his opinion, the best way for firms to advertise that they are willing to mentor students under an internship is through universities and colleges. There are many advantages here, he feels, as it creates awareness of the industry and companies in it to open doors for students who otherwise might not have considered print as a career option.

One firm that has built strong links with higher education is POS specialist Simpson Group. It runs an Industrial Placement scheme in partnership with Teesside University. The university acts as a quality assurance partner in that it guarantees a certain level of proficiency on the candidate’s part and visits to monitor progress.

“Placement students, when correctly managed, are an invaluable source of fresh bright ideas and a critical point of reflection on ‘how we do things’ and ‘can they be made better’,” says Simpson Group IT development manager Mark Flanagan.

Flanagan says he is a fan of placements as long as they are done with good reason. The ideal, he says is a “formalised internship, paid and mutually respectful”. The policy at Simpson Group is typically to pay half a graduate’s starter salary.

“Unfortunately, modern quality, hygiene and safety systems mean that offering work experience on the shop floor can be quite difficult,” adds Novick. “It might take at least a week for the intern to learn the procedures and protocols required before they get anywhere near doing real work. This will preclude many firms from doing traditional work experience of a week or two on the shop floor where historically the main motivation was altruistic.”

But potential drawbacks such as this aside, there is a lot to be said in favour of taking on interns – as long as the intention is not to exploit them shamelessly. Fresh perspectives and youthful talent should be nurtured.

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