Learning hard and “soft” skills through Internships

Ben Lyons Co-Director of Intern Aware, a British-based campaigning organization that promotes the rights and interests of young people entering the professional world, answers questions posed by Cassandra Davis educationtoday’s editor during his visit to the OECD 2013 Forum.

educationtoday: What kinds of skills do today’s graduates need to succeed in the labour market? Should students acquire skills to meet labour-market demands or to fulfill their own aspirations?

As well as theoretical knowledge, most employers require the strong soft skills such as commercial awareness, communication, teamwork, problem-solving and organisation that can be gained through work-related learning. The crisis has exposed the fact that students are worse off in countries where education is overly academic and institutions are failing to equip students with the skills they need for the labour market. With a greater focus on the hard and soft skills developed through individually tailored apprenticeships and internships, meeting labour market demands and fulfilling a young person’s aspirations need not be mutually exclusive.

educationtoday: Do you see greater opportunities for interns who have advanced technology-based skills?

It is evident today that in every sector a good knowledge of technology is needed and young people who don’t have these skills are going lose out. Skills are often referred to as being “generic”; however, there is a need for specialisation across all sectors, from arts to accountancy.

educationtoday: What is your take on the MOOC revolution? Do you think online virtual training could eventually reduce internships?

I’m skeptical of the MOOC revolution in relation to internships. Whilst some work can be done virtually, many of the soft skills from an internship – whether it’s meeting new people who might help with future job opportunities, or learning office conduct – are not going to be developed  if the intern is working hundreds of miles away. Embedding interns into a team is also beneficial for both parties, potentially bringing new ideas to the group, and helping employers judge if the intern would make a good “fit” with the organisation’s work culture.

educationtoday: How would you counter the claim that internships are just a way for businesses to get free labour? What can be done to reduce or eliminate this perception of exploitation?

Exploitation is a genuine problem that has been exacerbated by the economic crisis.  In Germany a survey has shown 81% of trainees are doing tasks done by regular staff, while the European Youth Forum estimates three-quarters of European interns receive insufficient payment to cover the cost of the internship. High-quality internships that are remunerated are shown to be extremely beneficial to both the intern and organisation. As internships represent the bridge between education and work; a diverse pool of interns is needed to ensure that employers are getting the best people, and this requires payment and recruitment based on merit.

educationtoday: University education is becoming prohibitively expensive in the US; in other places, students choose not to go to university because they feel they are not academically equipped.  What, then, can these students do to improve their chances in the labour market? Is vocational education now a viable alternative?

In today’s world we can only compete at the highest level if both tertiary education and vocational training are accessible and if they receive sufficient investment to be high quality. Vocational education is a viable alternative; however, in many countries such as the UK there has been a snobbish attitude towards VET and a consequence is a shortage of skills in sectors like manufacturing and engineering. In Germany, where VET is considered a credible path, many students go on to well paid, highly skilled jobs. Governments, businesses and educational institutions all need to raise their game and work more closely together. For example, businesses should have more input into vocational courses and funding for training colleges should be partially dependent on the institutions achieving high levels of employment.


Photo credit: Young people waiting for job interview / @Shutterstock

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