12 Jan 2012

Top firms pledge fairer work experience schemes


Some of the UK’s biggest companies join the campaign to promote fairer work experience opportunities, as Cathy Newman takes two interns to meet Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

Some of Britain’s biggest companies have signed up to new social mobility rules, as part of the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s pledge to end Britain’s “who you know?” culture. A total of 100 firms, including Coca-Cola, Tesco and Barclays, have pledged to openly advertise work experience opportunities within schools and public forums, rather than hand them out based on informal contacts.

The companies involved have agreed to make their recruitment schemes fairer by introducing application forms, which do not screen out potential candidates based on their ethnicity or education background. They will also provide financial support, so that young people from poorer backgrounds are not put off from applying for placements.

The firms have committed to sending representatives into schools, to talk to youngsters about their career aspirations and to provide guidance on internship opportunities. The companies involved employ a total of 2 million people and have a combined turnover of £500bn.

‘A fair chance’

This morning, Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman interviewed the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg alongside two young interns. Mr Clegg told them: “For too long, those first early steps of finding work experience were all a bit of a mystery. I think if we open it up so that everyone has a fair chance, I think that will make a big difference.”

If we open it up so that everyone has a fair chance, I think that will make a big difference. Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister

25-year-old Nur Hannah Wan, a graphic design graduate, is on her fourth internship. She told Mr Clegg her main concern is the cost of being on work experience: “It is difficult not knowing how you’re going to get to work the next day”, she said. “It is not immediately practical to not be paid. You need to be given a wage.

“Some people can’t afford the privilege of interning. It’s like you have to be living the life of luxury to get experience.”

Fairer internships?
I had such an incredible response to my Twitter request for people on work experience to come and interview the deputy prime minister that I had to deploy our excellent intern Nabeela to help me sift through the responses. The irony wasn’t lost on either of us, writes Channel 4 News Presenter Cathy Newman.

We arranged for Mark Scully, a budding journalist, and Nur Hannah Wan, a graphic design graduate, to put some searching questions to Nick Clegg. They didn’t disappoint. Mark got a 4.45am train from Liverpool (horribly early, but at least we did pay his fare) to get to London in time.

He told the DPM he’s enjoying his unpaid work on the Sunderland Echo but worries he might not be able to afford a similar placement in London. Nur Hannah is on her fourth unpaid job, and starting to despair of getting paid work. She was very unsure how the Business Compact Mr Clegg announced today would help her and other graduates.

Last year, he was talking about making firms pay interns the minimum wage. Now, he admits his Business Compact wouldn’t oblige any company to pay a wage. Help with expenses or accommodation looks more likely. And although Liberal Democrat HQ has signed up to the Compact, the DPM told me he couldn’t order his MPs to stop employing unpaid interns.

Cathy also spoke to 20-year-old journalism student Mark Scully. As part of his course, he is completing a series of placements at various newspapers. He thinks they have been essential in providing him with contacts and exposure in the industry.

He said: “Any opportunity I get to see my name in print and get people to read my work, I take that and feel quite good about it. That means I don’t really think about not getting paid for it.”

Unfair workload

In November 2011, the number of 16- to 24-year-olds out of work broke through the 1 million mark. With youth unemployment at record levels, finding a job is becoming increasingly competitive. Most graduate careers advice websites, like www.prospects.ac.uk, advise young job-hunters that it is essential to be proactive in gaining work experience to enrich their CVs.

I was not being paid anything for pretty much doing a full-time job. Neel Bhatt, unemployed graduate

However, some people are calling for the government to address the way interns are treated. Neel Bhatt is 26 years old and has completed three placements since finishing university four years ago, but he is still unemployed.

He told Channel 4 News he was given no money for travel costs or food on one of his internships, which lasted for seven months. On top of that, he says he was taken advantage of: “The office manager was made redundant and I was given her workload,” he said. “I thought it was unfair, because I was not being paid anything for pretty much doing a full-time job.”

23-year-old year old Dimple Mistry finally managed to secure regular freelance work as a television producer after finishing her degree at Kingston University over a year ago. She told Channel 4 News she wishes the government’s scheme had come into force sooner: “It’s great, but it’s a shame they didn’t think of it before. It took me nearly a year to get a proper job after graduating.

“This is a great way to get young people into jobs and give them the experience and the confidence of being in a working environment.”

Some of the UK's biggest companies join the campaign to promote fairer work experience. But one think tank says Nick Clegg and the coalition must do more to get deprived youngsters into work.

No work guarantee

Computer technology giant Hewlett-Packard is one of the 100 companies that has signed up to Nick Clegg’s voluntary scheme. The firm says it already advertises internship opportunities and provides a wage to successful candidates.

HP’s UK Managing Director, Nick Wilson, told Channel 4 News: “We keep the requirements to a minimum so opportunities can be easily offered.”

24-year-old Kyle Younger completed an internship with HP in 2009-2010 and now works there. He said there is no guarantee of permanent work with the company, even if you carry out an internship.

But he says he would have done the internship, even if it had been unpaid: “At the end of the day, you’re gaining important transferable skills that help you get from university to the workplace.”

Creating more jobs

Employment think tank The Work Foundation welcomed the scheme as a “good first step”, saying that most businesses do ask for work experience as part of the recruitment process.

This is not going to get people in deprived backgrounds into work. Neil Lee, The Work Foundation

However, Senior Economist Neil Lee says the initiative will only go so far in addressing social mobility in the long run. He told Channel 4 News: “This is not going to get people in deprived backgrounds, who have multiple problems into work. There will still be a lot of competition to get work experience or internships at places like Barclays, so you still have no chance if you do badly at school.”

He added that in the long term more jobs need to be created so that young people get paid work after their placements.