There was a bit of a flutter last week when the Victoria University of Wellington students’ association publicly spoke out about “internships” and the exploitation of students.
One of the issues with internships is that the term has been captured up till now in New Zealand by only perhaps two employment areas – medicine and law. It has been a long established practice for hospitals and law firms to troll the top of the graduate pile in an effort to lure excellent students into their pool of employees.
But overseas the situation is very different and the work “intern” is applied not only to that sort of experience but also much more generally to describe a student working as an intern in order to get experience or sometimes undertaking work as part of a course requirement.
Internships therefore are not by definition paid positions necessarily. It is over to the employer to decide on these matters. The experience is the reward and will come to sit well in a CV. So why the grizzle that the interns were doing work which was important and mattered?
It is critical that the work be important and crucial that it matters. “Work experience” by and large has a bad name simply because it is neither of these two things. I note each time I am in Australia and see in the retail sector scared and timid school students, lapel-badged as a “work experience student” or a “trainee” standing by the till looking nervous while someone else does the work. This is not “work experience” but simply a form of employment tourism.
In the 1990s I was Principal at a school close to Auckland Airport. Commercial students (for there was still then such a group) ran the Business Centre at the International Terminal dealing with the demands of international travellers. If they did this during school hours they were not paid, after-hours and weekends they were. The Food Technology group working under the guidance of their teachers and a professional chef employed by the school operated a canteen that served up to 500 meals a day. The Special Needs Units were in charge of some gardens at the airport.
Now all of this was real world, real work for real people. The students immediately grasped the fact that if they didn’t do the work it would be undone. They appreciated that a satisfied customer was satisfied with them- conversely a grumpy customer …..!
Internships are no frivolous field trip. They offer to university graduates an opportunity to place some practical experience alongside the theory, to demonstrate personal skills suited to the workplace rather than simply to the classroom and lecture theatre. In the polytechnic setting they are appropriate to many levels from say diploma through to degrees and are best integrated into the programme. This requires institutions to see ways of allowing students to be “at work” in another real world from the reality of being in a programme in an institution.
It is clear that “intern” and “internships” will become more commonly seen as a valuable bridge between education and training that makes demands not only on the education and training institutions but also on employers and those who work with them. That is the challenge – are we all up to it?