Paid and well-designed internships work

Shane Niall O’Higgins, ILO Senior Research Specialist

“Before, they would ask for your diploma and maybe your grades. Now, when you are entering the labour market, you are asked for multiple internships and work experience here and there so I feel the pressure to intern so as to be better prepared for the labour market.”

That was what secondary school student, Georgia, told me while I was carrying out some focus group research last year for an ILO survey on youth aspirations.

Her frustration and worry are typical these days of many young people entering the labour market. They face the daunting task of finding a decent job and then keeping it when they do.

Unemployment and the proportion of young people not in employment, education or training are high, and new and emerging forms of ‘non-standard’ employment such as temporary, part-time and gig work are rapidly expanding.

These types of ‘non-standard’ jobs now dominate young people’s early labour market experiences, along with internships, which are becoming ever more common – not only in high income countries where they originated but also in low and middle income countries.

The idea is that internships help break that Catch 22 that many young jobseekers face – not having enough experience to get a job and not being able to get the experience needed because of not having a job.

But, just how effective are internships as a means of promoting the long term job prospects of young people like Georgia?

The fact is, there hasn’t been much solid research. Above-all, very little at all is known about the impact of so-called ‘open-market’ internships which are not undertaken as part of either an educational course or as part of an active labour market programme. In many – if not most- countries, these remain under-studied and under-regulated

This is the question that my colleague Luis Pinedo and I set out to answer in a new ILO working paper,  “Interns and outcomes: Just how effective are internships as a bridge to stable employment?”, which reviews existing studies and analyses primary data using surveys of interns undertaken by the European Commission and the Fair Internship Initiative (FII), an intern advocacy coalition.

We came to three main conclusions:

  1. Not all internships improve career prospects

The impact of internships on the longer term integration of youth into work appears to be modest. Internships are, on average, less effective than either student jobs or apprenticeships as a means to bridge the gap between education and regular employment.

  1. Paying interns pays off

It is clear, however, that paid internships offer better job prospects for youth in the long run than unpaid ones and that paid interns are more likely to find a job than those who were not remunerated. This may be because the payment itself may be linked to other positive features of a well-designed internship programme. These include the presence of a mentor; similar working conditions as regular employees; access to health insurance, and internships that are long enough for the young person to acquire and improve their skills. In addition, formal certification of the completed internship and/or undertaking the internship in a big firm both influence employment prospects and can also have a positive long-term impact.  However, the likelihood of finding a job does not increase in relation to the amount paid to the intern.

  1. More and better research is needed

As yet, far too few studies have been carried out and those that do exist rarely make a serious attempt at identifying the causal links between internship programme features and post-internship labour market outcomes. Moreover, analyses of open market internships are even rarer. The task is clearly made more complicated by the fact that there is no agreement about what precisely is an internship. However, the lack of analysis is particularly worrisome not least because it is precisely open market internships which are least covered by existing forms of regulation. This paper, along with its two companion papers listed below mark a first step by the ILO to rectifying this information gap.

See the two other working papers that are part of the series:

Employment working paper no. 240: The regulation of internships: A comparative study Andrew Stewart, Rosemary Owens, Anne Hewitt and Irene Nikoloudakis

Employment working paper no. 242: Does work-based learning facilitate transitions to decent work? Laura Brewer and Paul Comyn

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