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HRDs urged to take internships seriously

As a scheme is launched next month to pair employers up with schools, HRDs need to be serious about offering work experience, including paying them for it.

Chief executives and senior executives from the private and public sectors will be going back to school next month as part of a scheme to encourage business and education to work together.

The Visit Our Schools and Colleges scheme, running from October 18-22, wants to make it easier for businesses to develop partnerships earlier in the educational chain. It aims to encourage companies to take on young people for work experience while helping school students better understand the career opportunities available.

Signatories to the scheme, co-ordinated by independent charity the Education and Employers Taskforce, include Centrica, Rolls-Royce and BT.

With 10% of last year's graduates still without work and 250,000 new A-level leavers last month joining the fight for jobs, HR experts believe the timing of a scheme to encourage work experience is apt. Research finds students who do some form of work experience are preferred by HR directors.

However, although a survey by KPMG finds 94% of secondary schools already engage with business, the taskforce notes they only do it on an ad-hoc basis.

There is no clear responsibility about who should make the first move - schools in hooking up with firms, or employers linking up with schools and universities. Another problem is lack of communication about the work experience/internship placements available. In a recent survey of 1,165 students by the National Council for Work Experience (NCWE), 82% said they were not aware of any internship schemes in their own region.

Graduates also benefit from involvement in work experience.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 22% of 2009 graduates who found employment within six months had been taken on by an employer with whom they had prior experience.

"Graduates desperately need work experience to make them a better prospect for employers," said Heather Collier, NCWE director.

"Those who can show they have 'the X factor' through previous volunteering or work experiences have a definite advantage," added Vodafone HRD Matthew Brearley (pictured), whose own research found 69% of graduates had undertaken an internship to boost their job-hunting endeavours.

More companies are formalising work experience. In March, Asda (which needs 6,000 staff to meet its expansion plans) announced it would create 15,000 work experience places for 14-16 year-olds. Each of Asda's 371 stores will be adopting a local school or college to help introduce young people into the world of work. Asda CEO Andy Clarke called it "a hand up, not a hand out".

However, only 150 firms have signed up to the Government's Backing Young Britain initiative, aimed at encouraging more work experience and internships.

Commentators believe there is a significant stumbling block preventing more work experience: pay. While Asda does not pay its work experience army, the NCWE finds 74% of students are turned off from applying for placements because of concerns they would have to work unpaid.

"There are a lot of unpaid internships around at the moment," said Collier. Bosses, she added, are missing out on talent by not getting this sorted and could also be in breach of the law.

New findings from the Institute for Public Policy Research and campaign group Internocracy show 18% of employers do not pay interns any wage and 28% pay less than the National Minimum Wage (NMW). Employers mistakenly believe there is a 'grey area' and they are allowed to take on unpaid interns so long as both sides know it is a voluntary position. They are wrong. Work experience can be unpaid but internships must pay be paid at least the NMW.

As HR magazine went to press, think tank Demos called for Government to pay firms to offer internships. "Giving employers £1,000 -£5,000 for every successful intern would mitigate the £120,000 each young person who is not in employment, education or training costs the state each year," Demos said.

Brearley said: "Internships aren't a guarantee of a better candidate, but they're a good thing to do."


74% of employers think 17-18 year-old college or school leavers are well prepared for work

11% of employers recruited a 17 or 18 year-old straight from school in 2009

6% of employers took on a 16 year-old as their first job in 2009

Source: UK Commission for Employment and Skills