Virtual internships could break down social mobility barriers in the City
Earlier this month, Boris Johnson announced working from home guidance would come to an end on June 21. This is a reassuring sign that life is coming back, slow and surely, into the City – an encouraging sign for graduates looking to secure a role with a leading firm this year.
Many young people will be keen to get out and get hands on experience in a firm through an internship, which will provide an invaluable opportunity to gain first-hand experience of the workplace, and boost a graduate’s ‘CV capital’.
A return to the office, however, must not mean a return to pre-pandemic hiring practices – especially when it comes to internships.
The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities around access to good careers, the chasm has grown increasingly wide between privately and state education students.
Bright Network’s report of 15,000+ graduates’ sentiment, What Do Graduates Want 2021/2022 shows that the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities around access to good careers for graduates that existed before coronavirus – particularly, between graduates that were privately-educated and those that were state-educated.
For students in private education, more than a third have already had experience in internships, according to Bright Network’s report from more than 15,000 graduates. In comparison, 23 per cent of state-education graduates have had similar experiences which lay the groundwork for their professional future.
Internship schemes tend to draw from too small a pool of graduates, implying that many young people without the connections and support are failing to land internship opportunities.
One of the biggest challenges to increase access is location. Pre-pandemic, the vast majority of City internships required travel into London and finding accommodation within commuting distance of the office – discouraging talented young people living far from the Capital from applying.
Highly talented students who do not have the contacts often discount applying to internships altogether, they often feel they lack sufficient understanding about the sector and what an internship entails.
Many of the top City firms acknowledge this; several have since hired graduates who, a year before, would never even have considered a job with them, but meeting company representatives at an open day changed their minds about their firms, and their sectors.
The scourge of unpaid internships is still rife. This rules out these opportunities for many students who cannot afford not to earn money during university holidays – privileging those students from comfortable backgrounds and making it more likely that these same students will take up a graduate role at the firm.
As firms adjust their business models in reaction to the pandemic and implement long-term plans for more distributed ways of working, there’s a huge opportunity to reconsider the whole structure of internships, and encourage a departure from an old reliance on networks and contacts, improving social mobility and equality of opportunity.
While many of us have moaned about endless Zoom meetings, there is a place for virtual internships. They are able to make City work experience much more accessible to young people who live far away from London, helping to make the talent pool much less concentrated on graduates from London and South-East.
Many firms have been forced to replace on-site internships with virtual programmes during the pandemic, and many have found these programmes to be as successful, if not more so, as their traditional internship schemes.
Take Intel, which replaced its traditional internship programme with a virtual one when the pandemic struck, generating the highest-ever US Intern Glassdoor ranking the company has ever seen. It has since decided to continue an online-only programme through to September of this year as the world looks to ease out of the pandemic.
In the UK, Internship Experience UK brought together a national coalition of industry bodies, educational institutions and leading employers during the pandemic to make leading employers more accessible to students looking to get a taste of working life – and make critical connections with employers – before applying for internships and permanent roles. 75,000 graduates completed it in its first year taking part in over one million hours of learning on the platform, becoming a blueprint for virtual opportunities of the future.
We owe it to our country’s graduates to ensure that all young people have an equal chance to access the same career opportunities – and it must start by making internships an opportunity for all.