So, No Internship Means No Job?

If you believe the “hell in a hand cart” hype in some of the press over the last day or two, many of you will be weeping into your oversized Starbucks cappuccinos. All your hopes of getting a job now lie crushed beneath the feet of all those graduates who could afford to take the unpaid internships which are now essential for any decent career. Or not.

One of the things we worry about as careers consultants is how to help our students unpick the mixed messages they receive about the job market. Any regular readers know this is one of my hot buttons, so here goes:

The High Fliers Research report
Yesterday, the High Fliers Research report on “The Graduate Market in 2011” was released. This is a regular report on the vacancies and salaries expected to be offered this year by 100 of the “top” organisations who recruit graduates (ie the big names). This only covers a small proportion of those organisations who recruit graduates and postgraduates – none of the high tech university spin-out companies, specialist and boutique consultancies, medium sized engineering companies etc. However, the report is reputable and does have some useful comparisons with previous years’ surveys, so we can see the impact of the recession and any recovery.

How it was reported
An “influential newspaper*” has reported the following facts which I would question:

Questionable fact 1: “Interning is the only way to get a job now
Do they mean that getting an internship with an employer is the only way of getting a graduate job with that employer? If so, the High Fliers report contradicts that.

Yes, investment banks expect 53% of their graduate vacancies to be filled by students who were interns with them, but for consulting that’s only 16% and for the public sector, that’s 17%. Maybe this is something to do with the fact that investment banks actually offer more internships than new graduates places, well over twice the number of internships than any other sector surveyed (over 3,200 this year).

An internship or work experience?
OK, maybe they meant that you have to have done some sort of internship to get any job. It’s true that 60% of these big, popular employers said they were “not very likely” or “not at all likely” to offer a job to graduates who had “no work experience”. But what counts as work experience?

The word “internship” arrived relatively recently in the UK and is often associated with a carefully managed fixed term placement, learning how to do a job. These are great if you can get one, but such “schemes” are very much in the minority: most students and graduates get their work experience by, well, working – vacation work they picked up through a local contact, a part-time sales job as an undergrad, setting up a simple supplier database for their family’s small take-away business – it doesn’t even have to be paid to count. Most employers are keen to find out what you learnt by being challenged at work, even if it was in a different sector.

It’s always been true that you struggle to enter the UK job market as a graduate if you don’t already have any sort of experience of turning up for work and doing something productive which doesn’t directly benefit you (other than you might get paid for it). I suspect 60% of similar employers would have given the same answer any time over the last 10 years.

Paid or not?
After saying that you need to get an internship to get any job, the news site continues:

Questionable fact 2: “But with most firms offering unpaid internships, it is feared middle-class and poorer graduates will miss out on top jobs.”

It is true that in some extremely popular sectors, particularly the media and politics (which is what newspapers know about), it has always been the norm to try to get in by working unpaid. It hasn’t been the norm in most other forms of work. I’d be surprised if any of the “leading companies” they quote for the rest of the report expect their interns to work unpaid  (apart from short “taster” experiences, where you get a week or two to find out more about the company).

The article claims that “the law on pay for internships is a grey area” – or to put it another way, it’s normally illegal not to pay workers, given minimum wage legislation. However some sectors have always relied on unpaid volunteer work (media, politics, voluntary sector) and they’re now being used to justify other organisations jumping on the bandwagon saying they want to do that too. This is an area where careers services amongst others are fighting to stop the drift into a culture where it’s the norm not to pay for work, just because it’s done by students and recent graduates.

And to reassure you,

we currently have 211 adverts on our CareersLink system for student or graduate internships or placements

only a handful of which are the unpaid taster type of internship – the rest are paid.

Who’s up, who’s down?
This is where I wonder if journalists just can’t do sums.

Questionable fact 3: “However the outlook for undergraduates wishing to work in engineering, industry or investment banking is bleak. The number of jobs on offer in these sectors is expected to hit an all-time low this year.”

I don’t have the figures as reported by High Fliers for 2007, though I suspect it’s true that the 100 large employers surveyed in sectors like investment banking and “engineering and industry” are still planning to have fewer graduate vacancies than in 2007.

However, the pattern of actual and expected recruits since 2007 doesn’t look like we’re heading for “an all-time low this year” in either of these sectors (figures taken from the last three High Fliers Research reports):

Dec 2008 

actual recruits

Dec 2009 

actual recruits

Dec 2010 

actual recruits

Dec 2011 

expected recruits

Engineering and industrial 1311 838 831 1041
Investment banking 2489 1583 2116 2655

Engineering has obviously been badly hit but expects to make a recovery this year. Investment banking has already bounced back from its low of 2009 (which I suspect was much higher than 2002/3, a real low point in graduate recruitment).

Who should you believe?
I’d suggest that as postgrads, you’re used to critically evaluating data, so before you base important life decisions on someone else’s interpretation of the facts, you go back to the original sources and make up your own mind. Or at least find some other interpretations and use your judgement.

* I really don’t want to drive traffic to this news website; suffice to say it rhymes with FAIL.