Internships: The competitive world of work experience

By Lindsay Baker
BBC News

Image caption,
Even after their exams, students will have to work hard to get an internship

When it emerged that government adviser and former Dragon's Den judge James Caan had given his daughter a leg-up with an internship in his own company, accusations of hypocrisy followed, as Mr Caan was meant to be championing social equality.

But for those young people whose parents let them "find their own way" in their careers, as Mr Caan advocated, what is the chance of getting such prized work experience?

Competition has never been so fierce for internships, it seems. Westminster School recently ran into controversy with an auction where work placements at top companies, Coutts Bank among them, were on offer to the highest bidder.

"You can't leave university now without some work experience," says Ollie Sidwell, founder of, who recently had one desperate father call him offering to pay for his daughter to do a placement with the site.

"So many people get degrees, you have to stand out. And now 61% of graduates end up working for the company they have interned for. It's how it works now."

"Competition has grown massively," agrees Simon Pullin of, a website specialising in opportunities for young people. He estimates that for the most popular sectors - IT, marketing, and business - there are at least 100 applicants per internship.

"The company gets a chance to vet the intern during their time there, and see if they might fit in permanently."

Image caption,
James Caan promoted fairer access to job opportunities for young people

'Get a grip'

It is especially important in the current climate, Mr Pullin adds, where there is competition for graduate-entry jobs "from people with more experience who may have been made redundant".

So it is no surprise then that some parents want to help pull strings for their children.

For Gus Baker, head of Intern Aware, it is "pointless to moralise about parents wanting to give their children the best chance".

"We're never going to be able to stop that, it's a natural instinct," he says. "But the big businesses need to get a grip, and make sure that they are hiring the best person for the job, not just the person who happens to have connections.

"And they need to pay them properly too," he adds. "It's bad for business to rely on people from a narrow pool - it leads to 'group think.'"

'Who you know'

Many major institutions and businesses are tightening up their policies to root out nepotism, it seems.

As Mr Sidwell puts it: "Banks, law firms, the whole market is changing. It used to be who you know, but that's not the case any more."

Now internships are a core part of recruitment policies, he says. "It's a pipeline for candidates coming in, and each line manager will now have an intern as part of their team."

An internship with financial services organisation Deloitte is a particularly hot ticket. It has won awards and topped surveys for its recruitment schemes.

For every 350 second-year student placements, they receive 10,000 applications, which need to be sent a year in advance.

Rob Fryer, its head of student recruitment, says the system guarantees fairness.

"Every candidate goes through the same application process regardless of their background," he says. In other words, there's no back way in.

Interns are not left making the tea or standing about aimlessly, he says. "They'll go to client sites with their team, do stock takes, in some cases deliver presentations and partner pitches. That way they get an insight into what we do, and we can gauge their potential. In a sense it's like an elongated job interview."

Top employers talk of "rigorous" assessment programmes. For Barclays, another top-rated employer, the process can begin almost a year ahead of the start of the internship.

Websites open for applications in August or September for the following year's graduate intake.

"In an effort to beat their competition to the best talent, firms are reviewing applications earlier and earlier and on a rolling basis, so waiting until the deadline can sometimes be too late," says Jane Clark, head of campus recruitment at Barclays Investment Bank.

'Passion and knowledge'

In the end, says Yara Silva, 22, an MA student of magazine journalism at City University, it comes down to determination. "I applied incessantly to every magazine or newspaper I could think of, dozens of them," she says.

"Some never replied but some did. During my time at university I've done nine internships - around 18 weeks of work - as well as working as an editor on the uni paper, and I'm lucky I could live at home and do that.

"I learned so much, and wouldn't have felt ready to start my career if I'd not done that. Now I just need to find a job."

Corinna Pyke, the marketing director of Borough Wines, recruits most of her interns from a wine institute. "They come with an existing passion and knowledge about wine," she says.

She avoids taking on the children of friends as a favour, as they are not as motivated.

"It's like having another job, finding their kids projects and explaining everything. They end up being annoying."

The need for motivation and perseverance is underlined by Heather Finlay, director of Sainted, a PR business in the highly competitive music industry sector.

She receives many requests for work placements and some of the successful ones have gone on to full-time jobs at the company.

"I would rather hire someone as an intern who has had the initiative to research the industry and send me an email themselves, rather than someone who's been touted out by a parent.

"When people come through that way, it's not the same. They have been handed it on a plate and they don't have that hunger, that fire in their belly."

Additional reporting by Catherine Wynne

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