Internships can deliver much more than just the tea

Rob Gray
Monday, May 19, 2014

From Monica Lewinsky and that infamous cigar, to the ongoing debate around cheap or even unpaid labour, the subject of internships can be controversial. There have been plenty of headlines in recent months about companies exploiting interns by paying them a pittance or nothing at all.

A September 2013 survey by jobs website Monster found that four in 10 interns didn’t receive the minimum wage – despite the fact that 87% of employers felt interns made a positive contribution to their business. Even the Prime Minister has been drawn into the debate. In a 2011 interview David Cameron said he was comfortable offering internships to the children of friends, but more recently he has backed calls for greater fairness and more rights for interns. 

The amount of negative media coverage surrounding internships may well have discouraged many businesses in the print sector from going down this route. Yet given the high levels of employer satisfaction recorded by the Monster research, perhaps not using interns is a missed opportunity.

BAPC chairman Sidney Bobb says the subject of interns has never been raised by his members. In his view, the use of interns is not widespread in print because the sector is mainly made up of smaller companies that tend not to have the same requirements for interns as larger organisations. 

However, there is a growing appreciation that internships may be a way of unearthing fresh talent for the industry. “Internships should be for students and postgraduates and can be beneficial to intern and company alike,” says George Thompson joint managing director at recruitment company Harrison Scott Associates. “Students, whether working as an intern as part of a degree or as a postgraduate, are there to learn, therefore should be allowed to shadow an existing staff member to learn the job, or work under a mentor who helps them develop professional skills. 

“Too many young students who apply for a job are turned down due to lack of experience. Internships give them the chance to get some on-the-job experience as part of course work, or as a postgrad. It could also give them the chance to get their foot in the door of a company, a bit like an apprenticeship. In training these interns, you may be mentoring a future star for the company.”

Some employers will concede that one reason interns are advantageous is that they provide low-cost recruitment and staffing. However, many employers also see them as an opportunity to access extremely skilled individuals who can be developed and mentored within the workplace. Many may have  a natural flair for problem-solving and thinking outside of the box that may provide a huge long-term benefit to a business and their attitude may rub off positively on existing personnel.

A good fit

Bringing a young, well-educated person into the workplace need not be a short-term option. If the fit is a good one, it may be that you have identified someone able to progress within your business. At the same time as providing them with experience, smart employers may be able to mold interns to an extent and assess whether they may fit into a team or organisation.

But what are the potential legal pitfalls employers need to bear in mind? For a start, in the eyes of the law ‘intern’ is a woolly concept. A key question must be addressed: is the intern someone who is merely gaining valuable work experience, or are they actually doing work for which someone else would otherwise be paid? 

Employers need to tread carefully as the difference is crucial.

“An individual classed as a ‘worker’ is entitled to be paid the National Minimum Wage,” explains BPIF head of legal and HR Anne Copley. “An unpaid, or underpaid, intern who can be legally identified as a worker can take a company to an employment tribunal for up to six years’ of unpaid wages. And the company can be fined up to £20,000.”

Moreover, workers are protected by anti-discrimination legislation. For instance, if an intern feels badly treated because of their age, sex or race, then they can bring a claim for discrimination in an employment tribunal.

Whether an intern is a worker with such rights can only be determined on a case-by-case basis. However, employers are likely to be on safe ground if the person in question: is only doing a few weeks’ internship; is simply shadowing others, rather than carrying out their own work; can come and go as they please; and is not doing work based on special skills that they possess.

However, an intern may be considered to have attained the status of ‘worker’ if: their placement lasts for longer than a few weeks and/or may lead to an offer of permanent paid work; the work they are doing is ‘real’ work, which otherwise someone else would be paid to do; the company is relying on the intern’s specific skills, based perhaps on their qualifications; and there are some obligations from both parties about providing work and being at work at specific times.

“Recently, an employment tribunal found that a 21-year-old working 10am to 6pm on a publisher’s website for two months was a worker and should have been paid,” says Copley. “She was responsible for managing a team of writers, scheduling articles, training and hiring new interns. That is quite high-level work, but it is equally possible that more mundane tasks such as stuffing envelopes could still amount to real work.”

This doesn’t mean that companies should curb the generous impulse to offer someone the chance to gain experience at the coalface. But it does mean the management of any internships must be properly thought through. Obviously, this extends to being clear on why you are using interns in the first place.

Putting aside the cynical view of cheap labour, typically there are two key drivers on interns, believes Mercury Search & Selection managing director Dani Novick. “The first is as a kind of extended interview or ‘try before you buy’. This would give the employer time to see what a potential employee is actually like and is really beneficial for people at the beginning of their careers when they have little or no working track record as evidence.

“The second perspective is as a means of showcasing your business to prospective employees and can be particularly useful in areas where there isn’t a large talent pool to draw from. Engaging with schools and colleges to provide internships that attract local people to the sector and the firm is a long-term strategy, but can be more cost-effective than trying to relocate people.”

Raising print’s profile

For today’s digital-savvy youngsters, print may not be their first choice of career. However, Novick says that programmes such as PrintIT! and Starpack are a great way of engaging with schools and colleges and if employers follow this up with internships it can highlight the dynamic and innovative nature of the industry. “If you consider the range of job roles and the breadth of the industry from basic print, through to cross media campaigns it really has enormous opportunity,” she says.

Harrison Scott’s Thompson agrees. In his opinion, the best way for firms to advertise that they are willing to mentor students under an internship is through universities and colleges. There are many advantages here, he feels, as it creates awareness of the industry and companies in it to open doors for students who otherwise might not have considered print as a career option.

One firm that has built strong links with higher education is POS specialist Simpson Group. It runs an Industrial Placement scheme in partnership with Teesside University. The university acts as a quality assurance partner in that it guarantees a certain level of proficiency on the candidate’s part and visits to monitor progress.

“Placement students, when correctly managed, are an invaluable source of fresh bright ideas and a critical point of reflection on ‘how we do things’ and ‘can they be made better’,” says Simpson Group IT development manager Mark Flanagan.

Flanagan says he is a fan of placements as long as they are done with good reason. The ideal, he says is a “formalised internship, paid and mutually respectful”. The policy at Simpson Group is typically to pay half a graduate’s starter salary.

“Unfortunately, modern quality, hygiene and safety systems mean that offering work experience on the shop floor can be quite difficult,” adds Novick. “It might take at least a week for the intern to learn the procedures and protocols required before they get anywhere near doing real work. This will preclude many firms from doing traditional work experience of a week or two on the shop floor where historically the main motivation was altruistic.”

But potential drawbacks such as this aside, there is a lot to be said in favour of taking on interns – as long as the intention is not to exploit them shamelessly. Fresh perspectives and youthful talent should be nurtured. 

Internships: Practices to benefit both parties 

The benefits of an intern

  • Particularly for industries with an ageing workforce, such as print, attracting new talent to the sector is crucial. By offering an internship you will be doing your bit.
  • You may find a future star employee.
  • If correctly selected and managed, an intern could bring fresh ideas and creativity to your business.
  • You could assign an intern to an area that may need a full-time employee in future to ‘test the waters’ with potential candidates. Be aware that this person should almost certainly be paid according to the legal definitions of ‘worker’ and ‘employee’ (see below).
  • Consider rotating interns to cover areas left vacant as employees take annual leave. Although the intern may only be able to perform basic duties, the department may appreciate the additional help (but again, see below).

Planning an internship

  • Gain backing from within the business. Interns will feel more welcome if everyone is on-board with the programme, from the CEO to shop-floor workers. 
  • Survey your firm, asking departments if they want interns and what skill sets they would need.
  • An internship structure should include information on learning objectives, daily responsibilities, short- and long-term projects, supervisor assignments, evaluation procedures, policies and expectations, and orientation.
  • Decide on compensation and whether this will be appropriate or legally required (see below).
  • Delegate duties. Get staff members to take ownership of key roles and responsibilities. Make sure supervisors have the resources to manage the participants and the programme effectively.

Recruiting an intern

  • Post the position: don’t just wait for people, perhaps staff family members, to come to you. Consider advertising the position on job sites those looking for this kind of experience will check.
  • Evaluate candidates in a similar way you would when hiring: consider what traits and skills you are looking for and then devise a system for evaluating submissions.
  • Select a candidate: Consider holding at least an informal meeting or interview with the candidate before arranging the internship to ensure they will be a good fit and that the programme you’re able to offer will be useful to them.

Making it work

  • Consider appointing a younger employee as ‘intern manager’. Interns will feel more comfortable being managed by someone their own age.
  • Arrange for the intern manager to meet with the intern on day one to discuss expectations and outcomes on both sides. 
  • Set the intern up to succeed by starting with small projects and graduating to more complicated and lengthy assignments.
  • You can reward an unpaid intern in other ways, such as free lunch in the canteen.

Types of intern task

Most employers will be mindful of not wanting to simply give interns all of the tasks that others don’t want or are too busy to do. But striking the balance between tasks that are interesting and helpful for the intern but also useful for the business can be tricky. Some ideas include:

  • Researching the viability of a new project, then compiling and presenting their findings.
  • Creating a proposal on a new social media strategy.
  • Critiquing the company’s website and brainstorming ideas for boosting usability.
  • Accompanying employees to outside meetings to observe and then input ideas afterwards.
  • Taking responsibility for a regular task. Even if it’s simple, it will demonstrate the ability to take ownership.
  • Coordinating a meeting.
  • Cleaning up a database.
  • Compiling employee manuals or developing process directions for tasks with high staff turnover.
  • Helping to enhance the intern programme for future candidates.

Internships and the law

An individual classed as a worker is entitled to be paid the National Minimum Wage. A company can be taken to an employment tribunal if an unpaid or under-paid intern should actually have been classed as a worker. Each case is judged on its merits, but someone will normally be classified as an intern if they:

  • Are only with the business for a few weeks.
  • Are shadowing others rather than carrying out their own work.
  • Can come and go as they please.
  • Are not taken on because they have skills that lend themselves to this work.
  • Are carrying out an internship for less than a year as part of a UK-based further or higher education course.
  • Are a work experience student of under 16 years old.
  • Are both working for a charity, voluntary organisation, associated fundraising body or statutory body, and don’t get paid except for limited benefits.

An intern may be considered to have attained the status of ‘worker’ if:

  • They’ve been promised a contract of future work.
  • Their placement lasts more than a few weeks.
  • The work they’re doing would otherwise need to be done by a paid employee.
  • The company relies on their
  • specific pre-existing skill set.
  • They are required to be present at specific times.
  • They have a contract to do work for a reward (this doesn’t have to be a written contract).
  • They only have a limited right to send someone else to do the work.
  • Their employer has to have work for them to do as long as the contract or arrangement lasts.

Someone legally classified as a worker will be entitled to:

  • Protection against unlawful deductions from wages.
  • The statutory minimum level of paid holiday.
  • The statutory minimum length of rest breaks.
  • To not work more than 48 hours on average per week or to opt out of this right if they choose.
  • Protection against unlawful discrimination.
  • Protection for reporting wrongdoing in the workplace (whistleblowing).
  • To not be treated less favourably if they work part-time.

NB: this definition of ‘worker’ is still distinct from an ‘employee’, who is someone who works under an employment contract and as such has extra employment rights and responsibilities such as statutory sick pay, maternity, paternity and adoption leave and pay, minimum notice periods when their employment will be ending and protection against unfair dismissal.

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