Nick Clegg recently spoke passionately about how internships should be open to all promising candidates rather than career launch pads for those with exploitable connections. What he neglected to mention was that the government had just closed a state-funded internship programme to help unemployed graduates find work.
During its year of existence the Graduate Internship Scheme paid for 8,500 graduates to be matched with small businesses who had signed up with universities and colleges, and a quarter of those were offered full-time jobs at the end of their stint or set up their own companies. Moreover, startup businesses which could not afford to pay extra staff salaries were able to benefit from the skills of the graduates they took on.
“The investment needed to keep the scheme going would be more than outweighed by reduced benefits payments and the increased tax-take from those that gain employment as a result of the internship,” says John Walker, chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, which campaigned for the government to reinvest in the scheme.
Currently, it is mainly large corporations that can afford to offer paid work experience to students, and with student debt spiralling fewer graduates can afford to commit to unpaid internships with smaller companies. But as increasing numbers of students compete for a dwindling supply of jobs, experience and contacts are often the only passport to a career.
Graduate unemployment stands at its highest level since 1992, but the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has no plans to resurrect the programme which, it says, was introduced as a recession measure. A spokesman says: “The HEFCE is evaluating the opportunities for higher education students and graduates to undertake high-quality work experience and is due to report at the end of May.”