Operation Intern

 
 

As Budget 2014 doubles the length of JobBridge internships, Tadhg de Sales Reddan examines both positive and negative intern experiences

Earlier this year, a Donegal national school advertised a vacancy for an Assistant Principal to teach pupils, develop the school’s education policy, and plan the curriculum. The catch? This advertisement was for an internship. The successful applicant would receive €50 on top of their weekly dole payment. It wasn’t a joke.

This is most likely not the sort of internship the government had in mind when it launched JobBridge, the National Internship Scheme, over two years ago. The scheme was designed to provide entry level placements for inexperienced jobseekers, especially graduates. Applicants are offered up to three consecutive internships, for a total of 18 months. In return, they receive a €50 top-up on their social welfare payment.

The scheme has many detractors, but others vehemently defend its value to young people. One proponent of the scheme is James Doorley, Deputy Director of the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI). Speaking to an Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection last year, Doorley described the benefits of participating in internships.

“First, they give young jobseekers the opportunity to gain employment and obtain experience. Second…[it helps] to network in employment situations, and jobseekers get to meet people. I am aware of a number of young people who took up internships [and] have obtained further employment, not with the organisation with which they served as interns, but with other organisations.”

On the other hand, a JobBridge parody website called ScamBridge.ie describes the nature of internships being offered as “little more than super-exploitation of the unemployed.”

Earlier this month, ScamBridge organized a protest outside the offices of FÁS in Dublin demanding that the government reverse a decision to double the duration of JobBridge internships from nine months to eighteen.

Speaking to the University Observer, James Doorley explained one of the reasons behind extending the internship scheme to 18 months. “Some employers were requiring people to have 12 months experience in job advertisements, so someone who had done nine months on JobBridge didn’t qualify.”

There are presently over 6,000 individuals on JobBridge internships, and 12,000 internships have commenced since the scheme began, although 60% of these internships have not run to completion.

According to the recent Indecon Report on the National Internship Scheme, 36% of participants secure immediate employment after their internship, and over half of these individuals go to work for the host organization. Although 57% of participants remain in the ‘jobseeking’ or ‘other’ categories when their internships end.

Interns themselves appear divided in their experiences of JobBridge. Andres O’Keefe is a UCD graduate with a degree in languages, who worked as a customer service intern for a large multinational. O’Keefe had previous experience in similar roles, and his treatment relative to paid employees clearly left him disillusioned. “I actually had the same workload as everyone else…I didn’t see any difference when I was working there. I was treated as an employee, I had the same schedule. I had the same hours. I had the same responsibilities.”

Like 80% of those who participate in JobBridge internships, O’Keefe was not offered a paid position by his host company. As such, he feels that some employers are taking advantage of the internship scheme. “There are many things I’ve seen, not just in my case, but I’ve seen that some employers, not all of them, do take advantage of the situation, because it looks a bit like cheap labour.”

He also suggests the scheme is not properly regulated, with inadequate oversight from the authorities. “At no point had I any follow up or even any feedback from the department of social welfare… because of that, interns are at the employer’s mercy a little bit.”

The possibility that an intern may be open to exploitation is further aggravated by fears that failing to complete an internship may cause financial problems if they re-apply for jobseekers payments, although the Department of Social Protection insists this is not the case. There is also a danger that an intern will remain silent about unfair work practices, for fear that speaking out may harm his or her job prospects with the employer.

Clearly this is a concern for the NYCI too. Doorley explains, “A key issue for us is to improve [the] type of internships provided, improve mentoring and greater and more effective monitoring to prevent exploitation and job displacement.”

There are many positive reactions to the JobBridge scheme, such as that of Robin Farrell. Farrell is a graduate of DIT, with a degree in Tourism Management. After becoming unemployed, he was offered an internship with a Dublin tourism company, working as an administrative assistant.

Although still unsure whether he’ll be offered a job when his internship ends, Farrell has found the scheme worthwhile. “At the end of the day, it’s a great experience. At that stage [when I finish], I’ll have been here almost a year.”

While O’Keefe feels he was asked to do the same job as paid employees, Farrell feels that his employer trained him well and appreciated the purpose of the internship: “I did get a lot of training… there’s a manager as well, and they were sort of my mentor… We would all do similar roles, but other people would have a lot more responsibilities than me.”

After completing a four year degree, including a six month work placement, shouldn’t Farrell already have been well equipped for an entry level position? He doesn’t necessarily agree. “Maybe not so much in dealing with customers directly…that’s something you can’t really get training for.”

Farrell’s experience echoes the stated objectives of JobBridge. Launching the scheme two years ago, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton said that unpaid internships would “give young people the opportunity to gain valuable experience as they move between study and the beginning of their working lives.”

Indeed, 64% of all JobBridge participants have degrees to undergraduate level or higher, of which 22% have postgraduate degrees, according to the Department of Social Protection.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to exercise caution in associating internships with inexperience. The department also say that 72% of interns have previously held full-time employment. Speaking to the media earlier this month, Minister Burton conceded that the scheme is “not for everyone.”

Pathways to employment via internships have been attempted elsewhere in the EU, and not without controversy. Last year, UK companies like Argos, Sainsbury’s and TK Maxx were forced to withdraw from a similar work placement scheme devised by the British government.

Public outrage saw one Tesco store over-run by Right to Work protestors after it advertised for nightshift staff, who would not be paid, but instead be allowed to keep their benefits. Tesco subsequently improved its offer, but the scheme has been irretrievably tarnished.

On the other hand, the UK has had success with other employment schemes particularly aimed at young people who are not in employment, education, or training. Instead of offering extended, unpaid internships, the UK scheme provides financial incentives to employers who hire unemployed youth, in the form of a cash subsidy.

Indeed, during the Irish Presidency of the European Union earlier this year, EU Social Protection Ministers agreed a €6 billion Youth Guarantee scheme for Europe. The scheme would guarantee to offer a job, work experience, or training to every young person aged between 18 and 24, although the Minister has not clarified whether this will replace JobBridge, or operate alongside it. Similar Youth Guarantee schemes have attracted praise for their success in Finland and Scandinavia.

For some, it’s a welcome change from a broader EU policy focused on fiscal austerity as a response to the economic downturn. In the recent budget, the Irish government have invested €14 million in the Youth Guarantee scheme, but it has yet to be fully implemented.

In a press release, the NYCI welcomed the initial investment, but said it is “far below what is required,” estimating that over €270 million would be required to implement a Youth Guarantee in this country. To put that in context, it would reduce the savings in Budget 2014 by 10%. On the other hand, it could provide a strategy to take 40,000 young people off the live register.

Employer Jonathan Healy, who runs a B&B and tourism company in Co. Tipperary, is disillusioned with the government’s strategy on unemployment. Healy has hired an intern under the JobBridge scheme, but remains sceptical about JobBridge, which he doesn’t think goes far enough.

“I think [JobBridge] should be there for everyone who is unemployed… especially young lads,” says Healy, who would favour increasing the overall payment, and making participation mandatory at the same time.

Although he has hired an intern, Healy says that JobBridge “doesn’t make a huge difference to the bottom line”, and doubts whether he will be in a position to offer a job to his intern when her placement ends, except maybe if business improves.

Healy cites wage costs as one obstacle to hiring new staff, but also cites current welfare rules, whereby any claimant working more than three days per week will not receive a jobseeker’s payment, regardless of hours worked. “When the internship scheme ends, we could just afford to pay [our intern] part-time, but… she would lose her jobseeker’s money.”

Like the interns who spoke to the University Observer, Healy claims there has been no on-going monitoring or interaction with the Department of Social Protection.

The latter issue is a concern; whether JobBridge is either inherently exploitative or empowering is a matter of continuous debate. But for public confidence to be maintained in the scheme there must be proper regulation of the type of jobs that can be offered, and the quality of training that is provided to interns.

As well as the Assistant Principal’s role referred to earlier, other JobBridge vacancies have included those for a school cleaner, a fully qualified solicitor, and a retail manager “with previous experience in a similar role.” Clearly, these are not vacancies that empower well educated, inexperienced young people to take their first steps on the employment ladder.

Despite his bad experience of the scheme, O’Keefe does not completely write it off. “The best part would definitely be the fact that that’s on my CV now, and whether I had a good experience or not, it’s something that would allow me to apply for better jobs.”

Overall, the criticisms of JobBridge are many, and often valid, but remedies to the unemployment crisis are a lot scarcer.

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