Paying interns makes internships pay - ACCA Comment

Helen Brand
Interns bring with them a huge amount of potential

Companies must get out of their comfort zone and give young people a chance.

This week, ACCA released the findings of a survey we conducted with Intern Aware and YouGov, which asked businesses across the UK their views on internships. Our research found that over half of British companies have never used an intern, and 37 per cent of businesses have sourced some of their candidates through friends and family.
The good news for the City is that businesses in London are far more likely to employ interns, with just 38 per cent of respondents stating they have never done so. At the other end of the scale, 72 per cent of businesses in the Midlands have never employed an intern, with the North also having a worryingly high proportion of businesses (67 per cent) that have never offered paid internships.


Work experience is now considered an integral part of any CV and what worries me most about these figures is that they confirm what young people have been saying for years – internships are being dished out to the friends and family members of those at the top, rather than to the most able. This creates yet another hurdle for bright young people who have bucket loads of talent but lack money or connections.
Employers throughout the country are unequivocal in their support for diversity, and the numbers show it’s good for business. Research conducted by the Work Foundation showed that effective diversity policies have been linked to high performance organisations. They result in improved performance, employer image, brand awareness, creativity and innovation – a veritable checklist of all the areas you’d want to see your company excel in.
The business case is clear. Companies with diverse workforces are best-placed to succeed in the years to come. And yet when it comes to the crunch, it seems that some at the top still find a little nepotism extremely difficult to resist. So if we’re all clear on the benefits of diversity, why are so many of us still talking the talk, but not walking the walk?


The uncomfortable truth is that, for many, recruiting in their own image feels safe, and while all the evidence suggests it isn’t best for business, it remains a difficult habit to break. But break it we must. Businesses and young people alike need a fair system, which is why we’re backing Intern Aware’s call for the government to require all internships lasting more than four weeks to be paid. That’s the first step to ensuring those without access to financial support during an internship aren’t excluded before they have even had a chance to apply.
Improving access to internships for all will not only bring benefits to London’s young people, but will provide a boost to the businesses offering them too. Cultivating a talented, motivated, ambitious workforce is a vital component of any good strategy for growth. If businesses in London want to keep their place at the head of the global race, offering paid internships to a diverse cross-section of the next generation of local talent is key.
With diversity and social mobility top of the business agenda, companies of all sizes and from all corners of the UK should look at offering paid internships to young people from all backgrounds.


Our report also found that businesses with fewer than 50 employees were far less likely to have offered internships, with 83 per cent of respondents from this demographic never having done so. This is a shocking statistic if you believe, as I do, that small businesses have just as much to offer interns as larger organisations.
The opportunity to work in a range of different business environments gives young people a broader experience of work, and a better idea of how their strengths and weaknesses fit with potential employers. In smaller companies, interns can often make a bigger impact and the positive effects of their work can be seen relatively quickly. Also, many placements with smaller companies are project-based, which means that interns have more opportunity to take ownership of a task and see it through to the end.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the benefits of paid internships in smaller companies don’t only flow one way. For an SME, a spare pair of hands to undertake tasks no-one else has time for is invaluable. Interns can prove to be a great resource for smaller businesses where existing staff are busy maintaining “business-as-usual” and don’t have the time to look at issues such as competitor analysis, marketing or market research – all key areas for growth.


Whatever the size of your organisation, interns bring with them a huge amount of potential when it comes to boosting your digital strategy. A visible social media presence is universally accepted as a necessity for most organisations with a public profile, and who better to advise you on the latest platforms than the tech generation? If you are looking for insight into what the 16-24 demographic looks for from a business, there is no one better to ask than your interns.
With corporate social responsibility now so important to business success, having a steady stream of happy interns heading back out into the world is a welcome boost to your brand reputation too. Businesses that do internship programmes well are cultivating ready-made brand advocates, primed and ready to talk about the rewarding and fulfilling experience they had with your company. On the flipside, if you ensure you get feedback from your interns and take it seriously, you can also discover the areas your business needs to improve on from a completely different perspective.
With the range of opportunities paid internships offer our young people and the businesses that employ them, the fact that almost half of businesses in this country have never employed an intern is a huge missed opportunity for UK plc.
London is leading the way and, by 2017, ACCA wants to see the rest of the country catch up so that at least 60 per cent of all businesses across the UK have employed a paid intern. The more British companies reaping the benefits of working with a talented, enthusiastic young person, the better it will be for our economy.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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