Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Fair Access and the Importance of Opportunity: A Case for Quality Internships

The General Election looms on the horizon. The party machinery is being oiled; sound bites are being tested; party coffers raided. Important issues like job creation and climate change - to name but a few - should be at the heart of this election campaign, but of course they won’t. Which makes issues like the one we bring up today all the more pressing.

Nobody can doubt that fairness is a key characteristic of a developed democratic society. In the Scottish context, fairness is high on the governmental agenda. The Panel of Fair Access to the Professions, a body set up to make recommendations on how fairness of access to professional skills should be promoted, does not stray from this norm either.

The Final Report of the Panel of Fair Access to the Professions identifies a problem in the UK’s present, and a danger in the UK’s future. Firstly, that ‘opportunity… is unevenly distributed’, with very few things being done about this, and secondly, that people who are not properly skilled could end up ‘stranded economically and divorced… socially’. It stresses, therefore, the importance of providing more learning opportunities to young people, and supporting them properly in today’s changing professional environment.

The report, drafted by a panel of high-profile specialists from a wide range of professions, asserts that the UK Government needs to make sure that the young people of today are given equal opportunities to social mobility. Special attention is given, among other factors (e.g. education) to internships, a sector that has many solutions to offer, and many problems to surpass.

Why internships?

Internships are recognised as ‘an essential part of the career ladder in many professions’ and an ‘important access point for entry to a career’. Professions are considered ‘central to the UK’s future’; a future where economic advantage will lie ‘increasingly in knowledge-based services’. The connection is easy to make. Internships, a proven ‘access point to professions’ and a decisive factor in graduates’ career decision-making process can help reverse the trend of professions becoming ‘more… socially exclusive over time’.
There is potential, but it is not being exploited.

There are significant inequalities in relevant opportunities for individuals, brought about by a number of factors (socio-economic, geographic, etc.) Internships are often unpaid, which means that taking them up may be costly; and the cost, which may vary, deters people who cannot afford to work for free in order to get the experience. As a result, ‘professions draw their interns from a limited pool of talent’. People are missing out on opportunities for professional development, organizations are missing talented individuals, and the consequences for social mobility are negative.

The quality of internships varies as well. Some are ‘very poorly run’, with interns used as a ‘low-cost way to cover positions’ and others are ‘run to a very high standard’. In short, a number of the already limited amount of people being trained receives training unlikely to lead to a ‘highly developmental internship experience’.

The proposed solution by the Milburn Commission consists of three main proposals: (1) a fairer, more transparent system for internships, (2) a national Kitemark that will recognise best practice, and the (3) removal of financial barriers to internships. By presenting case studies to prove the feasibility of said proposals, the Panel emphasizes strongly on the cooperation that will need to be forged among concerned actors (Government, professions, unions etc.) so that higher-quality training will be made available to more people.

The aim of the Report is ‘change’, and the Panel is very clear in stating that this change ‘has got to be made’. The proposal is out there, and it is up to actors to turn it into action.

How relevant is an (essentially) English Report to Scotland?

According to recent research conducted in Scotland, social mobility has suffered, as ‘the margin for improvements for children is more limited’ and ‘opportunities for upward movement have been declining’. Combined with the effects of the economic crisis in the job market and the increasing unemployment of graduates, the need to implement measures in Scotland, such as the ones proposed by the Report, becomes only more pressing.

The realization of this situation, and the intention of the Centre for Scottish Public Policy to partake and contribute to this nationwide initiative, is the primary reason behind its desire to create an internship programme that will hopefully be fully funded (by the Scottish Government), and accessible to all*. In cooperation with the Scottish Government, as intended and proposed by the Panel, the CSPP offers to formulate and manage a programme that will bring graduates in contact with participating organizations. By promoting internships and offering a graduate wage, the CSPP will create new opportunities for a wide range of organizations and graduates alike. The former will be able to tap into a wider pool of talent that can suit their needs better, and the latter will be given the opportunity to get that crucial first step in the job market, without being deterred by the cost. In order to ensure that the programme is closely aligned with the Scottish Government’s strategic policy objectives, a contact point will hopefully be established.

The benefits of such a program are obvious. Scottish graduates could greatly improve their employability, Scottish businesses could benefit highly from the work of talented professional people, and the Government could enhance its own efforts to improve and strengthen its economic recovery. New opportunities could be created for everyone.

Change is possible, but it ‘has got to be made’. Identifying a problem only makes the imperativeness of solving it even greater; such is the case of fair access to professions. Since we have established that we need to work together as organizations, it is only natural that we should examine how such cooperation could take place, and try to make it reality as soon as possible.

There are many steps that need to be taken towards the goal of a better future where everyone will be able to participate and contribute. Extensive cooperation and fairer access to professional development may not be the only answers to the problem, but they are indispensable parts of its solution. Indeed we, alongside numerous other organisations, are already working together to put relevant and paid internships to Scotland’s struggling graduates.

For further information contact Barry McCulloch, CSPP Policy Manager.

*This programme has already began, without Scottish Government funding.

Nikolaos Bizas,
Research Associate