As working environments evolve, the type and length of internships are also changing, adding to the urgency to have a common understanding of what exactly an internship is.
“Internships have become such a huge part of the academic agenda, my sense is that there should be some strategy that helps us move out of that grey area that somehow we’re not doing something that isn’t quite right,” commented Tony Johnson, president of the Academic Internship Council at its Global Internship Conference (#GICDublin2015) in Dublin last week.
He went on to say that traditional debates in the sector between paid and unpaid placements need clarification. “People talk about exploitation and this simply isn’t fair for the work that’s being done by so many people,” he said.
“Internships are a comparatively new phenomenon and so many countries haven’t sat down and made a decision on them”
“Universities across the world, providers, and companies are actually trying to do things usefully to help the workforce, to help the students find themselves jobs.”
Geographic hotspots, where students carry out internships, are set to change dramatically, following global industry hubs. Aurelie Chouaf, Director of Absolute Internship, a London-based third party provider – which organises internships for around 1,000 students for employers in China, Singapore, Hong Kong and London – says non-traditional markets are set to boom.
“A lot is going to happen in more and more non-traditional locations – in Paraguay, Venezuela, South Africa, Ghana, Morocco, Cambodia, Myanmar,” she said.
However, Johnson says in his 30 years in the sector, the biggest challenge has been understanding and abiding by local legislation. Having a universal understanding of an internship could help providers forge future relationships with employers in new destinations.
“Internships are a comparatively new phenomenon and so many countries haven’t sat down and made a decision on them, and that again comes to the grey area that our students can fall into- there are so many different visas because nobody’s actually thought about it,” he said. “It takes a long time for legislation to catch up.”
At the event, delegates also discussed the benefits and practicalities of the new types of internships that have appeared in answer to limitations both of students’ time and mobile offices including “micro internships” as well as “virtual internships”.
All delegates agreed that more organisation around internships means they could help narrow the skills gap between employers’ needs and graduates’ ability to deliver.
“The idea of a definition of what an internship is has been on everyone’s mind and I think there are universities that have been asking the question- what makes for a quality internship?,” commented Michael True, senior associate at the Career & Professional Development Center at Messiah College and creator of online resource Internqube.
“But what’s forcing the issue is constraints are being put on people that yes, we need to have individuals properly trained and ready for the workforce,” commented True.
“There is a gap between what universities teach and what employers need and universities are starting to address it but there needs to be more of a systemic approach.”
Chouaf at Absolute Internship added that a universal definition could help guide those institutions and providers to train employable students.
“It would be helpful if one big organisation would define what is the difference between work and internship and volunteering. To really outline and bullet point – this is what an internship is, this is what a work experience is, this is what an unpaid work experience is so then it will be much easier for universities to have this guidelines and be able to build a work placement programme or a volunteering programme.”
“Chinese students want to do internships for the same reason American and EU students want to do them- different experience”
American students represent the majority of students going on global internships but demand is growing in Europe as well. In 2013, the Erasmus + traineeship programme saw 55,621 students going on work placements abroad, a 16% increase on the previous year.
“There is big demand in Europe and the recession is driving demand,” commented Sandro Sorato, managing director of European Career Evolution in Cork, Ireland.
“But in general there is a big problem because they don’t speak English. So for the moment there is very big demand in people going to the UK, Ireland or Germany to learn a language and to have a work experience. But now, in the last few years, there has been a big demand in people who want to go to the United States and China.”
Similarly, interest in internships is growing in Asia as well. “It’s cheaper to do internships in the US on the J-1 visa but then cost of living is higher,” commented Fan Di, part of the internship department at SharedVision China in Shanghai.
“Chinese students want to do internships for the same reason American and EU students want to do them- different experience. It helps them get a better job in the long run, it shows they’re independent.”