Decent youth employment: are internships the way forward?

Employment & Income25 Jan 2022Martha Kapazoglou

Internship programmes have been heralded as an integral tool to support school-to-work transitions, not only in the global North, but increasingly in developing countries as well. Perhaps more so than any other sub-theme of decent youth employment, internships attract an overwhelming degree of controversy: should internships be paid or unpaid?; do interns actually gain meaningful work experience?; do internships play a role in exacerbating existing inequalities? As there is a myriad of other questions that could be added to this list, it appears that even established internship systems do not have it all figured out.

This article critically examines the internship systems in the U.S. and the Netherlands, where the author has held various internship positions over the past five years. Considering that internship programmes are, at present, not as widespread or formally established in developing countries, this critical investigation seeks to address the following question: what can the experiences of global North interns teach us about how to roll out successful internship programmes in the global South?

The U.S. and Dutch internship models: space for improvement?

One of my most vivid recollections from studying in a U.S. liberal arts college is the “internship fever” that overtook students on campus at the beginning of the spring term. For an entire semester, students are overcome with anxiety over whether they are going to be able to find a “good internship”. As summer draws nearer, the feeling of anxiety peaks for those students unable to secure an internship – at which point they hope to land any internship at all. The “internship fever” is indicative of larger realities in the U.S. labour market: the bulk of employers is considerably more likely to hire someone with previous internship experience over someone with none. To say, however, that successful school-to-work transitions merely hinge on securing any kind of internship is misleading, as it is only paid internships that yield a comparative advantage. Yet, while summer internships in tech, finance and consulting are notoriously well-paying, 43% of internships at for-profit companies are actually without renumeration and internships in the arts, humanities, and the governmental sector are more often than not entirely unpaid as well. Apart from exposing which occupations we value as a society, the prevalence of unpaid internships can also exacerbate existing inequalities along racial, gender and class lines. The argument here is quite simple: not all students, nor their family, have the financial capacity to sponsor an unpaid internship over the course of an entire summer.

Shifting focus to the Dutch context, let us briefly focus on academic internships in the development sector. Internships, more often than not, are a graduation requirement for development students and, vice versa, most employers require prospective interns to be enrolled at a Dutch university. These types of internships usually offer a stipend and renumeration for travel costs. During the academic years 2019-2020 and 2020-2021, when I looked for internships, the usual stipend offered did not exceed EUR 350. While paid internships (or at least stipend) is a positive differentiation from the U.S. system, an EUR 350 stipend is neither enough to live on nor a fair renumeration for the skills offered by a Master’s student. It is important to note, however, that Dutch students are also eligible to receive student loans with negligible interest rates from the Dutch government which, in combination with an internship stipend, makes a living wage. For those unable to obtain student loans, such as the thousands of international students enrolled in Dutch universities, getting a part-time job in the hospitality and retail sectors is a common approach to securing a liveable wage. The only downside here is the exhaustion that results from being a full-time student whilst juggling two jobs. At the end of the day, with or without government loans, a meagre stipend contributes towards the devaluation of students’ skillsets. For development organisations in particular, who are champions of the decent youth employment agenda, low internship stipends seem like a betrayal to their ethos.

Towards the end of my Master’s studies, I got hired by The Broker, a Dutch knowledge brokering organisation working in the development sector, on a short-term (one month) contract as an intern. I was selected to assist with a highly specialised project, namely to carry out a literature review, for which I was fairly compensated. Internship opportunities that display these features – short-term, highly specialised, and fairly compensated – are called micro-internships. This internship model is one of the alternatives to traditional internship models that are gradually emerging. Based on personal experience, the quality of my micro-internship and its highly specialised nature ensured that I did not have to undertake any administrative or grunt work.  Most importantly, the internship provided me space to hone in on skills I was acquiring as a Master’s student instead of just being a box I had to tick for graduating.

Internships in the global South context: a promising way forward?

The brief analysis above showcases some of the shortfalls of the U.S. and Dutch internship models: they can exacerbate existing inequalities, fail to compensate fairly and not always providing interns with enough meaningful work experience. Based on these shortcomings, it is easy to dismiss internship programmes as an inadequate tool to facilitate school-to-work transitions in the global South. Yet, either thanks to my optimistic outlook or the fact that I have personally had some positive internship experiences, I do believe that internships are a promising way forward, albeit with some caveats and serious rethinking. Apart from my own optimism and personal experiences, a slowly growing body of research is documenting the short- and long-term positive effects internships can have for youth in developing countries. For example, researchers evaluated an internship scheme in Yemen, which provided companies with a 50% subsidy towards the costs of employing interns for six months. The researchers concluded that these paid internships resulted in recipients enjoying better employment outcomes in the first five months after the programme.

Let us circle back to the question posited in the introduction: if internships are indeed a  pathways towards decent youth employment, what can the experiences of developed countries teach us about rolling out robust programmes in developing countries?

Firstly, when designing an internship system and the accompanying regulatory framework, the debate should shift from whether internships should be paid or unpaid to figuring out how interns will receive fair and timely renumeration. As is the case in developed countries, offering paid internships will be challenging for smaller, development NGOs and civil society organisations, which already operate with constrained budgets. A potential solution for small development NGOs could be to include a paid internship position when applying for grant funding from donors to ensure that an internship budget exists from the get-go. Additionally, experimenting with alternative forms of internships, such as micro-internships, can yield unexpectedly positive results. The short-term nature of micro-internships, for example, might make them more attractive and feasible both to employers with a tight budget and prospective interns with not much available time, such as young mothers. Additionally, their specialised nature can ensure that interns put their skills to use and accumulate meaningful work experience.

Fairly compensated internships that offer recipients the space to practice and refine their skillsets and accumulate meaningful work experience should be at the heart of decent youth employment interventions in developing countries. While providing assistance to build forward better and more inclusively, development stakeholders in the global North will do well to reflect on their own internship programmes as well.