The received wisdom in terms of careers advice is that work experience, and particularly internships, can be a huge benefit to graduates when applying for jobs. It is not as immediately obvious why employers should offer them, although you would suspect that it’s not simply for altruistic motives.
In fact, many graduate recruiters compete as fiercely to attract students to their internship programmes as they do to attract graduate employees. And there lies the reason: many actually use internships as a recruitment tool.
For example, over two-thirds of work placement students or interns at Ernst & Young rejoin the firm annually as graduate trainees when they complete their studies. Similarly, KPMG report that their work experience programmes are an integral part of their graduate recruitment programme, with up to 90 per cent of their interns and placement students returning as trainees to the firm.
These are significant figures. A large firm would typically employ up to 150 students annually on work placements and internships.
Not all firms use internships as recruitment tools, however. Jane Babb, Director of Trainee Programme at law firm Arthur Cox reports: ‘While the programme does form part of our sourcing strategy, it does not directly form part of our graduate recruitment process. Interns who wish to be considered for a trainee position must apply in the usual way.’ However, she finds that former interns do perform well during the recruitment process and are often successful in securing a traineeship, helped by their ‘firsthand knowledge of the firm, its culture and its values.’
There are other benefits to the employer, not least the ‘word of mouth’ marketing that comes from students returning to university after a positive experience of working within the organization. Some, refreshingly, use work experience not just to train interns but as a way of training their own people. Jane Babb says: ‘The intern programme gives us an opportunity to train our partners and senior associates as leaders and mentors, and to fine-tune their skills as trainers. This gives them a sense of fulfillment and enhances their sense of team.’
What to expect from an internship
Typically, an employer will offer work placements organised through university and college courses (such as co-operative education placements) and other internships for students, usually in their penultimate year, whose universities do not have dedicated work placement programmes. Work placements could be from 4 to 12 months; summer vacation internships tend to be from 10 to 14 weeks.
There are some exceptions: Arthur Cox offers two-week internships at the start or end of summer, designed to give a flavour of working life. These are small programmes with only 12 interns in each.
Whatever the timing, a student embarking on a structured programme such as this can expect a formal induction designed to introduce them to the company, its systems and its business. They may be assigned a ‘buddy’, usually a recent graduate, who will help them with the transition to office life (and social life) and a ‘mentor’, a more senior person, who will supervise their work. At Arthur Cox, for example, a mentor will assign work to the intern, supervise their work and, explains Jane Babb, ‘provide them with advice and guidance to help them make decisions about their future career’. At the end of the placement, interns will meet their mentor to evaluate their performance and identify the skills they need to develop. ‘The focus is on inspiring the intern to achieve their potential and identify their career goals.’
Interns will be treated as employees and expected to make a real contribution to the business, while receiving the training and feedback to help them do so. The tasks they are given would be similar to those given to a graduate trainee.
Nessa Kiely, Graduate Recruitment Manager at Ernst & Young, reports, ‘From day one, students are given the opportunity to contribute as an individual by sharing their point of view, owning specific projects and having a defined role within a team. We help to create a sense of belonging from the beginning through our friendly and welcoming environment, and we provide mentors and buddies who are on hand to answer questions and provide advice.’
An insight into business
In many cases, an internship can be as structured as a graduate trainee programme, with employers taking pains to provide students with a rounded picture of their business. At Ernst & Young, for example, students have the opportunity to work in a number of different departments from audit and tax to information technology, marketing and human resources.
This experience is, of course, a great insight into the business and culture of a particular employer – helping decide whether to pursue a career with the same organisation or in the same industry – but it is also a valuable insight into business in general.
Nessa Kiely describes the benefits: ‘The programme enables students to experience what life is like at Ernst & Young, increase their business understanding, and develop the skills needed throughout their career, such as team-working, decision-making, communication, language and numeracy skills.’
Interns at KPMG can expect a similar experience, as Graduate Recruitment Manager Emma O’Reilly explains. ‘KPMG’s student programmes are designed to expose participants to the activities of the firm and enable them to enhance their educational experience and the theoretical knowledge gained at university through practical work experience. Students should endeavour to apply their knowledge and skills from college to business scenarios they encounter during their placement.’
Getting the best from a placement
Students who embrace the opportunity are those who get the most out of it. While it may not directly lead to a job offer, an internship is a benefit for job-hunting. Students who finish their placement with a formal performance evaluation can benefit hugely from the opportunity to identify both the skills they have developed and those they need to work on.