Article by Donne Burrows, COO at Engine B

working from home setup with computer and desk, productivity, working from homeWhen it comes to the employment market, the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed many victims. It now looks like internships are one of the latest.

A recent survey by Prospects, a UK graduate jobs website, has found 26 per cent of graduates had their internships cancelled this year due to the chaos caused by Coronavirus.

For ambitious students and graduates, an internship has become a rite of passage. After years spent focusing on academic study, it makes sense for students to add practical experience of work to their skill set, particularly to increase the chance of being employed after graduation. Although it is terribly disappointing for those who are no longer able to take up an internship, it is my hope that the temporary hiatus we’re seeing in these programs will give employers an opportunity to reset and refocus, ensuring that the work we’re doing to bring graduates into the workforce is truly fit for purpose.

The link between an internship and future careers has become deeply ingrained in the psyche of today’s young professional and with good reason. There are few other ways to combine achieving academic success with practical work experience and internships can be a brilliant way to accrue the skills and network needed to secure a good job. Research shows that leaving university with qualifications alone no longer cuts it in today’s highly competitive job market – more than one third of employers are unlikely to employ a graduate with no work experience according to High Fliers research. There are few better ways to get a foot in the door of the modern workplace.

Given the importance of internships and the role they have to play in shaping graduate recruitment and the make-up of industries of the future, it’s vital that internships are as open, transparent and inclusive as possible. Right now, most organisations appreciate the value of creating diverse and inclusive teams and the business case for diversity in organisations is significant and growing. It is heartening to see the strides that are being made in implementing initiatives like unconscious bias training to move corporate diversity beyond lip service to part of a company’s operational strategy. It may be that internships are one way that some organisations are falling short, however.

There are still too many organisations overlooking internships as part of their diversity and inclusion efforts which means they run the risk of missing the boat on future talent. Even the most enthusiastic proponents of robustly inclusive recruitment policies can have a blind spot when it comes to offering work experience to a friend’s child or someone they know from the school gates. In all fairness, as a parent myself, I am not sure it will ever be possible or necessarily desirable to completely prevent this from happening. Perhaps, rather than implementing draconian measures designed to prevent any forms of nepotism or favouritism, it is better to turn our attention to the way formal internship recruitment is run to ensure we get the best, brightest and most diverse applicants working for us. As many firms have paused their internship programmes, this could be a good time to start making some positive changes.

Promoting diversity in an internship programme means looking strategically at the issues impacting your industry and thinking laterally about what skillsets and mindsets will be needed to make a difference. Do you need data scientists? Analytical thinkers? Problem solvers? Now is your chance to start reframing the way you search for the graduate trainees who will have those skills and can bring fresh new thinking to your business. Casting the net wider and inspiring more high-quality applicants to believe your organisation is one in which they could make a difference and learn from your people is crucial. This takes time and cannot be achieved in a single careers fair or with a standalone job advert, so start thinking about how to embed this throughout your organisation, not just in HR.

For those thinking about internships and considering the benefits, it’s important to bear in mind the landscape is changing positively. No longer are these roles considered to be summer jobs or work experience, but instead a steppingstone into permanent roles and graduate schemes.

However on a more cautionary note, there is still work to be done to ensure internships are not just another way of entrenching privilege. Until companies commit to making changes and overhauling how their internship schemes work, they will not benefit from the amazing new energy brought by bright, skilled young people.

If you are a job seeker or someone looking to boost their career, then WeAreTechWomen has thousands of free career-related articles. From interview tips, CV advice to training and working from home, you can find all our career advice articles here