Opening Doors to All Must Be a Priority for Business

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Remember when work experience was the pinnacle of a career’s launch? Well they still are, but things have changed a little. Chris Jones, Chief Executive of the City & Guilds Group, talks to CEO Today about careers and the future of internships in the business world.

It’s time to consign unpaid internships to history. That was the public call made by Alan Milburn, Chair of the Social Mobility Commission, when he launched new research last week into public attitudes on this matter.

I agree with him – and so does 72% of the public who back a change in the law to ban unpaid internships lasting four weeks or more. It is critical that doors are kept open to people who want exposure to a job or industry. It is also critical that doors are kept open to everyone, and not simply those who can afford to work for free or have the right connections.

However, let’s be clear. Internships are a positive thing. I’d go so far as to say work experience is absolutely key, whether it is a week-long stint at age 14, or a longer, more formal programme a few years later.

We know there’s a mismatch between young people’s expectations of the world of work and the reality. Many young people don’t know what jobs they can go into, what the working conditions of different professions might be, which industries they might be suited to, or how to get to where they want to be. In City & Guilds’ survey of 3,000 14-19-year-olds, we found they were aware of less than one in five occupations – and unfamiliar with a majority of well-paid roles.

Good careers advice is vital to addressing this, but so is work experience. Contrary to stereotype, work experience is (or should be) about far more than making tea. It provides critical hands on exposure to the world of work and the highs and lows of different roles. There’s no better way for someone to gain real understanding of what an industry entails than for them to spend some time in it.

And importantly, at a time when employers regularly highlight that new arrivals lack key workplace skills, such practical experience is invaluable in developing transferable skills such as teamwork, communication and commercial awareness. These skills are desperately sought after by employers, but not necessarily best learned or effectively taught in a school environment.

That’s exactly why it matters so much that everyone can access these placements. It matters that they are openly advertised and not just available to those ‘in the know’. It matters that formal internships – the ones lasting for a substantive period – are paid, so that they are not only accessible to those who can afford to work for free, or who live locally and can stay with parents. Sadly this is not the case at the moment.

Addressing this issue has to be a priority for business. Apart from anything else, it’s in every employer’s interest to access the widest possible pool of talent. This has always been true but is especially so given concerns about skills gaps and recruitment challenges in the wake of Brexit. The world of work is changing, and with it we are set to see a fiercer fight for talent. Forward-thinking employers must make sure their doors are open everyone so they have the biggest pool to choose from.

Opening up internships also will have the benefit of improving diversity. Aside from being the right thing to do, workforce diversity has been proven to be a strategic advantage. For example, McKinsey has found that companies with a more diverse workforce outperform those which do not by a significant margin, while the Centre for Talent Innovation suggests such businesses reap a ‘diversity dividend’ that includes an expanded market share and a competitive edge.

Ultimately, it’s just good business sense. Properly paid internship programmes can be fantastic for those looking to get a foot on the career ladder and a great way for an organisation to recruit people who may not yet have much work experience. Finding a way to offer opportunities like internships to all will benefit not just the interns themselves, but the economy as a whole.

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