Ten years ago, a group of City business leaders, convened by Sir Win Bischoff of Citigroup, created Career Academies in the UK, taking their inspiration from a well-established programme in the United States. The idea was that young people from non traditional backgrounds should get a taste of big business during their six form studies. Each would be offered a six-week paid internship in a supporting company. Many of that first cohort of young people went on to find real jobs in the City and Canary Wharf. Career Academies UK now serves thousands of young people, helping them to get a taste of the world of work, its demands and the oportuntities it brings to those who apply themsleves. I am proud to have been the organisation’s founding CEO – and I am delighted when alumni find me on Facebook and tell me what they’re up to.
The question of who should be given internships has been debated in the news over the last few days as the media force Clegg and Cameron to do battle over anything they can find about which the two politicians might disagree. Clegg is said to think it outrageous that internships should be made available to the middle classes on the basis of parents’ professional networks. Cameron apparently disagrees vehemently and is ready to support any mum or dad who uses his or her contacts to find their child a bit of useful work experience.
The media is missing the point. Sensible parents will always do their best to support their children and get them a head start in life, whether that’s introducing Jim or Jemima to a firend at the golf club who happens to be a partner in an international law firm, or whether it’s finding a summer placement with an uncle at Billingsgate fish market. Giving someone a leg-up is absolutely appropriate – and I don’t believe anyone should stop doing so. The point is that there are many young people who have no-one to give them that leg-up. And even if they do, they have no experience of the world that leg-up might lead them to and what might be expected of them.
A good internship gives someone real work to do and helps them to develop the skills, behaviours and attitudes that are needed to succeed in that workplace. It helps a teenager learn about the importance of showing up, suited and booted, on time, day after day. It gets that young person to see what might be possible. It gives real-world context to their studies. It raises aspirations. And, in the process, it allows those who are hosting the intern to develop their coaching skills, see the world from the viewpoint of a teenager and maybe inject a bit of youthful energy into the workplace. As one employer said to Win Bischoff, “it’s a win, win, Win!”
So the argument should not be about who gets internships. It should be about how we incentivise employers so that all young people get the opportunity to contribute to the world of work before they enter it for real. Not by spending a fortnight at 15 getting bored doing a fortnight of photocopying and tea making (although everyone has to do that in the workplace at some point); but at 16 or 17, taking one’s coursework and applying it for real – whether in a bank, bakery or barrister’s chambers. Maybe those in government might like to think about tax breaks for firms that offer paid internships to young people.
And maybe they might like to think again about the need for brokers to ensure that internships are well organised, safe and truly inspirational. If internships do make a difference and do matter, then they need to be carefully organised so that they are safe, engaging and truly inspirational for everyone involved. And that brokerage costs money. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea to invest some money in the future workforce, would it?