Wednesday 13 December 2017

Why unpaid interns can help bridge the knowledge gap

Does the national unpaid internship scheme exploit workers, or give them a valuable opportunity? Or something in between?

Eoin Mulvihill
Eoin Mulvihill

Eoin Mulvihill

The basement office in Dublin where I started my unpaid internship in marketing many years ago had a sink in the cloakroom where you made your tea, and sandbags by the door in case of a flood. It was my first time in an office job and I was grateful. I had a chair and a desk and a phone and an opportunity.

The coming months weren't crammed with learning experiences, but they did provide me with a space to put the knowledge I'd gained in college to the test and provided me with some invaluable lessons in business that I still apply today.

The MD was meticulously focused on money coming in and out, his favourite mottoes being "It's all about the bottom line" and "If you're not earning money, you're burning money". He wasn't in a position to dispense much specialist knowledge to me in the field of marketing, but he certainly showed me how to run a business.

I'd see him on the phone dealing with suppliers, agents and contractees. I was introduced to accounts packages, software and practices for small business management. Did I benefit from the internship? Absolutely.

When I am speaking to my intern today in my office in Parkwest, I often find myself repeating verbatim many of the things that were once said to me all those years ago by the MD of that company. If I picked up a few things from the MD of that company while there then it's no harm really - despite the sandbags in the hallway, he has had a successful business for over 40 years, so there's worse people I could have taken after.

There has been a growing national dialogue about internships over the past few years. On social networks the conversation is overwhelmingly anti-unpaid internships and JobBridge - the national internship scheme.

Most denounce JobBridge as a scam. Employers are cast as slave-drivers while the graduates who take the opportunities are cast as naive victims of circumstance. The reality, often times, is a lot less colourful.

Sometimes it's about graduates who know exactly what they are doing and are using the unpaid internships or JobBridge placements to get ahead. Sometimes it's about employers who don't have the resources to take someone on, but will trade their time and years of expertise in exchange for some contribution to the company.

My intern is on the JobBridge programme and he plays an important role in my business. My company has to maintain profit in order to facilitate future growth and create a stable foundation for creating long-lasting jobs, which it will.

At present, it is not the right time to hire a full-time employee and it would be irresponsible and detrimental for me to do so. But I can absolutely create a valuable experience for an intern willing to make a stab at creating a better future for themselves.

My criteria for success for his internship will not be measured at the end of nine months - it is measured every day. Every day I ensure that there a list of tasks for him to complete that will both benefit his professional development and further the goals of the business.

Most of these tasks require one-on-one detailed delegation in order for the outcome to be successful, so it is a responsibility I don't take lightly.

Small businesses are set to create 60,000 jobs in Ireland in 2015 and are proving yet again to be the lifeblood of this country. Yet one of the main reasons small businesses fail to grow is because the owner spends too much time working 'in' the business, not 'on' the business.

By working on many of the procedural tasks that occur on a day-to-day basis, my intern frees up my time and allows me to focus on bringing in more business and planning for the future. In exchange I give him an inside view to the rapidly-changing marketing industry, an opportunity to develop his professional skills and a chance to boost his CV.

One might argue that all members of a team should be paid. Yet the reality is that the skill-set required of a professional is rarely fully acquired without on-the-job experience.

Despite third-level institutions' efforts to make their courses as relevant as possible to the marketplace, many business owners today will testify that many graduates are still entering the workforce without knowledge of how to professionally speak on the phone or professionally word an email.

These small details make a big difference. An internship can bridge that gap from being knowledgeable to being capable.

Of course, internships have the capacity to be abused by the employer. This can lead to frustrating and upsetting situations for an intern.

However, I don't believe that all unpaid internships or the JobBridge placements should be tarred with the same brush and denounced as slave labour. To do so is to rob young people of their ability to assess opportunities for themselves. To do so is to cast shame on employers where it is not deserved. To do so is to discourage businesses and graduates from working together to create a better future for themselves.

When I interviewed candidates for the JobBridge internship placement at my company, the successful candidate initially rejected the offer after some consideration, saying that he didn't feel it was worth his time.

So I made a counter offer to reduce the hours to the minimum required through JobBridge, included travel expenses and guaranteed a certain amount of training per month. He accepted the role.

I think his attitude served him well - he was savvy enough to negotiate, yet optimistic enough to seize the opportunity. He trusted the unknown and got himself unstuck from a bad situation.

All I can do as an employer is reward him for taking that risk by ensuring I pay attention to his workload and professional development, and to try to structure the business in a way that will facilitate taking him on in the future.

That doesn't strike me as exploitation of the naive - it strikes me as an employer and an intern working together to make a difference and leverage each other to success.

Eoin Mulvihill is managing director of Lime Interactive, a multichannel marketing and communications agency based in Parkwest, Dublin

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