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Dragon's Den's Dupsy Abiola on internships

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8th Oct 2012
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On Sunday (7 October), Dupsy Abiola, founder of InternAvenue.com, became the first participant in the BBC’s Dragon’s Den TV programme to succeed in pitching a recruitment business.

Her website enables employers to connect with student and graduate internship candidates online.   Here she speaks to HRZone about her views on the market and how HR directors can best avoid common pitfalls when hiring young people to give them this kind of work experience:   Q. What is an internship and who uses them?   A. There is no standard definition for an internship (or work placement). It is typically described as “a fixed term (paid) work placement designed to facilitate the transition between formal education and professional work”.    Interns themselves are most commonly students or graduates with a degree or equivalent level qualification, which can include people with MBAs or those who have changed career.    In a challenging economic climate in particular, professional experience can set promising candidates apart from those with no experience. Interns are also generally keen to see whether they will fit into a particular profession and gain relevant work experience, with the hope of finding full-time employment with their internship provider or similar employer.    Internships are becoming increasingly popular among employers across many sectors, but are particularly common in the finance, technology, legal and professional services sectors and among start-ups.   Virtually all of the UK’s leading graduate employers offer paid work experience programmes for students and recent graduates and 75% of graduate vacancies in the finance sector are now filled by interns.   The most common duration for internships is three months but positions can vary from three weeks to 11 months. Government guidelines stipulate a six week minimum – see the Department for Business Innovation & Skills’ ‘Best Practice Code for Quality Internships’.   Q. How do internships differ from other options?   A. Internships differ from “work shadowing” schemes, which involve participants undertaking a short period of purely passive observation but producing little or no valuable work for the employer.    Internships are also different from apprenticeships, which are geared towards manual or practical vocational posts such as plumbing and masonry that are learnt “on-the-job”.    Employers commit to providing a structured on-the-job skills training course, which results in a recognised qualification upon completion. Apprentices are often school leavers and typically do not have degree-level qualifications.    Q. Why offer internships?   A. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 90% of employers see a clear business case for employing young people and it appears that internships are the “new black” in this regard.   Internships are by their nature flexible in duration and format and offer employers a number of benefits including:-  

  1. A useful long-term strategy for building up a talent pipeline and cultivating their own workforce
  2. A tool for assessing candidates in ‘real time’ over an extended time period
  3. Innovation fostered by the fresh perspectives of youth who tend to be enthusiastic and highly motivate.

  Interns can also undertake valuable work for an employer who is, in turn, able to assess their performance and fit. Tasks might range from business-related research and analysis to managing social media campaigns or providing more general support to free up staff members so that they can undertake more strategic activities.   Although interns’ work will need to be properly supervised, a suitably structured program can provide a tangible return on investment both in terms of increased productivity and reduced hiring costs.    Businesses that offer good internship schemes will also gain credibility in corporate social responsibility terms from supporting young people.   Q. What are the most common pitfalls and how can HR directors best avoid them?    A. From a legal perspective, the term ‘intern’ or ‘internship’ has no separate or special legal status in UK employment law, a situation that often causes confusion among employers.    What it means, however, is that employers should treat interns in much the same way as other workers and with the same degree of professionalism and care. They also need to comply with normal employment law best practices and legislation.    Before taking on an intern, HR should identify what tasks candidates will be required to undertake and the skills, qualifications, and experience that they will need to demonstrate.   The advertised position should set out details about the internship under offer, including the role and its responsibilities, details of remuneration and expenses and the company’s policy on extending an internship position into a full-time contract.   Once an intern has been selected and hired, it is advisable for employers to provide them with written confirmation of the working arrangement. They should also be given a quick induction at the start of the scheme as well as continuous constructive feedback.    The most common pitfall for employers relates to unpaid or expenses-only internships. According to a YouGov survey, only 12% of managers are aware of the legal risks associated with this type of internship and there is a high degree of misinformation about the situation.    In most cases, interns are classed as “workers” in the usual sense, which means that employers must comply with National Minimum Wage legislation. The rate of the NMW varies depending on age, but the majority of employers pay a rate that is higher than the NMW and lower than the equivalent graduate starting salary.    For further clarification, read the Department for Business Innovation & Skills’ guidance entitled ‘Internships and National Minimum Wage’.  Dupsy Abiola is the founder of intern matchmaking site, InternAvenue.com.

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