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A student has anonymously written a no-holds-barred account of her recent internship at Melbourne tabloid The Herald Sun, sparking a flurry of debate.
The intern described a work environment that made her feel insulted and patronised.
It’s a difficult situation for The Herald Sun, and one that could take place at the thousands of other organisations that use interns across Australia. Interns are offered an honest, warts-and-all experience of a company’s culture and work environment, and if they don’t like what they see, they’ll probably tell others about it (though usually in less viral circumstances than the above example).
Nonetheless, internships in practice aren't usually so controversial. The businesses LeadingCompany spoke to today said they gained a lot out of their internship programs. And internships are increasingly becoming a standard part of university education.
Their value to students is partly because they offer an unvarnished view into a workplace, says Judie Kay, the national director of the workplace learning governance organisation, the Australian Collaborative Education Network.
“Lots of students have gone into their workplaces and either thought ‘yes, this is for me’, or ‘no, this is not for me’,” she says. “That’s part of learning – of finding out what, for example, a nurse really does.”
University students undertake internships in order to confirm their career choice, to put their theoretical education into practice, and to gain experience that will help them make the transition to the workforce.
And companies, Kay explains, use internships to access top talent, for recruitment, and to “give back to their own profession”.
Overseas, internships have been criticised for being little more than unpaid labour. There is a national campaign under way in the UK to end the perceived student exploitation. But Kay says the laws around internships in Australia make that far less of an issue here. “Under the Fair Work Act… if you’re doing unpaid work, you can only do that in a charity or non-for-profit… or for credit if it’s part of your course,” she says.
The Fair Work Ombudsman is keeping an eye on unpaid internships. Earlier this year, it commissioned a study into the extent and nature of unpaid work experience in Australia. It’s timely, as the prevalence of such work is likely to spread.
“Across Australia, there are a number of universities where it’s embedded into every discipline,” Kay says. “Traditionally it’s been prevalent in things like engineering, education and nursing, but in many universities across Australia it’s now much broader.”
Deloitte’s summer program
Not all work experience undertaken by students in Australia is unpaid.
Accountancy firm Deloitte, for example, offers four- and eight-week paid placements over the summer holidays to university students. Traditionally the program mainly accepted commerce students, but it is becoming more diverse, accepting many technology students in recent years, says Deloitte’s national recruitment director, Tanyth Lloyd.
“From our perspective, the key focus for us is early identification of talent,” she says, noting that the race to secure such students is getting “more and more competitive”.
“Early identification used to mean the last year of university. Now it’s getting to mean the first year!
“It also provides us the opportunity to secure those talented students before they graduate. And it’s an effective way to predict their on-the-job success. In four to eight weeks, we can see whether they’d enjoy it, and whether they are suited to a client-facing or more technical role.”
To best assess its interns, Deloitte gives them work similar to that they would be engaging in during a graduate role with the company. “We don’t scale it back in any way,” Lloyd says.
“It’s relatively low-risk for us to bring them in as summer vacationers. Even if we bring people in who aren’t as successful, who we don’t intend to offer graduate opportunities to, it’s worth the opportunity to assess that. It’s definitely worth our time investment.”
E-Web Marketing is open for business
Internships are common not only in large companies like Deloitte, but also across much of the mid-market.
Online marketer E-Web Marketing has had several interns. Matthew Forzan, a divisional director (SEO) at E-Web, says the company doesn’t have a structured, paid internship program, but rather is open to being approached by students who are interested in the company.
“The opportunity is always there,” he says. E-Web Marketing has a recruitment website, and runs regular ‘information days’ where people interested in the company can learn more about it (it has hired several people through these, and also gained a few interns). E-Web also regularly deals with universities - several of its staff are speaking to students at UNSW in September.
“It gives students a taste, or a foot in the door, about what we do and what online marketing is all about,” Forzan says.
“There are obvious benefits for us as far as getting people to do some work… but it also helps us build a relationship with that person. We have people do internships that we’ve then bought on full-time. It’s suited them and us.”
Interns can nominate a division of the business they would be interested in working with.
“Often universities don’t really teach too much online marketing, so we place them alongside people to learn how it works. They sometimes also work on logistics, or on the business side of things.”
“They do lots of different things,” Forzan says. “But not coffee runs.”