A Series of Fortunate Events: A study on an internship done right

What is an intern? For many it is synonymous with the office lackey – whose day consists of petty tasks and tedious notetaking (in between meetings and the bi-hourly trips to Starbucks) – there to work hard (often unpaid) for the love of it. Equally, it is casually informed by the 2015 film ‘The Intern’, in which Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro), fighting boredom, comes out of retirement to volunteer as an intern at an internet start-up. The office is open plan and adorned with modern furniture while the ‘elder interns’ (the subject of the film) drive fancy four-by-fours to and from work.

While ultimately trivial, the film does reflect a pervasive truth about contemporary internship culture. According to a 2017 report from the IPPR, the number of unpaid internships has risen to 50% (and growing) since 2010, working conditions are below par, commutes frequently make it inaccessible for those of a lower socioeconomic background, and jobs are often advertised with a desire for previous work experience. That, coupled with the effects that COVID-19 has had on job opportunities (or lack thereof), presents a landscape that is, while not as romantic as the film would suggest, not entirely dishonest: largely inaccessible, and exclusionary and restrictive to the best and brightest from different backgrounds. Not to mention the expansion of healthy business and the advancement of social and economic progression.

However, emerging from a pandemic in which prevailing social narratives have been interrogated and workplace norms challenged, companies are starting to take note, promising to create diverse and fulfilling internship opportunities. Prominent figures within the industry are the Public Relations and Communication Association (PRCA), launching a campaign, that is “committed to making sure that every intern gets a paid, meaningful internship, which is accessible to all”.

In December 2020, I started my internship with Intent Health (one of many the agencies to have since signed up to the commitment) with bated breath. Excited by the prospect of working life, I was privy to the reputation that internships had. And after interviewing my colleagues (formally interns) it became apparent that I was not alone.

Adam, Junior Account Executive, sympathised with my apprehensions, thinking that interns “acted as a dogsbody for senior staff e.g., make cups of coffee etc without having any responsibilities.”

While Hannah, also a Junior Account Executive, was concise with her expectation: “shadowing, admin work, side-lined.” There seemed to be a consensus.

So how, after eight months, had these assumptions changed, if at all? Junior Account Executive, Eyula seemed to think they had. “I felt Intent Health gave me a chance. A chance to enhance my skills and knowledge by teaching me the fundamentals of the most important tasks of the company so I would one day replicate them.”

Adam’s opinion had also changed dramatically, claiming that he had more responsibility as an intern than he ever expected. Which raises an important question: how did Intent Health manage to create something so rewarding where others so often fail? Hannah posited a potential reason for this, saying: “I get to do everything including client facing work, research, monitoring, stakeholder mapping, brainstorming, pitching…you name it I’ve done it (or been given the chance to do it). Forget other internships, friends of mine in the same industry with a year more experience don’t get to do the client-facing and pitching work.”

This sentiment was echoed by Eyula who praised the comprehensive training sessions offered at Intent Health. She noted: “what I liked about the training is that a lot of it was for all of the employees, it reminded me that we all have things to learn in this industry.”
Hannah further alluded to this sense of belonging. The training helped “immensely”. “The guidance of everyone was invaluable and I have learned much more than the hard skills needed to succeed at this job.”
Adam also spoke highly of the support offered throughout the team, saying that “being open with your colleagues on when/if you need support is pivotal in being successful at Intent Health.”

Crucial to this, is the sense of responsibility and trust that is given to interns at Intent Health. A responsibility, not defined by culpability, rather an opportunity to try new things, learn, and, most importantly, feel a sense of value and belonging.

Intent Health’s commitment to this was clear from the application process. Rather than electing for a more traditional recruitment method, Intent Health used organisations determined to help those from traditionally marginalised and ignored communities, with the aim of realising the goal of authentic diversity and inclusion. I used Even Break – a recruitment service that helps disabled jobseekers into employment – finding that the application process did not encourage the usual corporate spiel but offered a platform for self-expression; something that had eluded me (and I am sure many others) in most applications.

Eyula expanded upon this: “I applied through the amazing Taylor Bennet Foundation, a charity that exists to encourage Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic graduates to pursue a career in communications. Instead of submitting a common cover letter and CV, I was asked to submit five/six questions that would give the team an insight of what I perceive to be my real self.”

However, as with every facet of society, the last 18 months has been made unusually difficult due to the pandemic, made worse by the fact those starting internships are usually in their foremost experience of working life. Adam reflected on his time spent working from home. “Although the flexibility of remote working was very nice, it was very daunting starting a new job and not being able to see or meet any of your colleagues. I am an outgoing sociable person that thrives on the company of other people, so it was hard to adjust to. Once I felt more established in my role and more comfortable in my work environment; I was able to better utilise the flexibility remote working gives you.”

As lockdowns become a thing of the past (touch wood), there is an opportunity to forge a future that combines the best of both, so that interns (and everyone) can enjoy the benefits of the office as well as the flexibility and comfort of home working.

The last 18 months has exposed a lot of the pitfalls of society, laying bare the many injustices that exist in the workplace, specifically for young and disadvantaged adults. While Intent Health and the PRCA are still in a relative minority in their pledge to try to make things better, it is important that they are heard. For far too long companies have been too complacent with the internship experience, who it is for, and its value to individuals and society. It is time for young people to expect better, and for businesses to make sure that internships are grounded not by fiction, but by reality.