Once just a week-long stint in a shop, café or office while still at school, work experience has evolved into extended professional placements now known as internships.

So why the rise in popularity and are internships genuinely valuable to school and university leavers, or simply a form of cheap staff for cost-cutting companies?


What is an internship?
An internship is a form of on-the-job training, which can be paid, unpaid or partially paid. Internships are to professional careers what apprenticeships are to trade and vocational jobs – an opportunity to gain industry experience and learn essential skills. They run for a set period of time – such as one, three, six or 12 months - at the end of which a full-time position may or may not be offered.

Why do an internship?
In the current competitive job market, hands-on experience is essential to set yourself apart from your peers. "Employers look for more than just a solid academic record when considering the best fit for their business, and successful job applicants are usually those who have shown a genuine interest in the industry by undertaking some form of relevant work experience," explains Matt Reaney, director at JAM Recruitment.

Do companies take advantage?
Some interns are given roles and responsibilities akin to a full-time paid junior position, prompting concern than some unscrupulous companies are taking advantage of unemployed young people who are desperate for experience and willing to work for no or little pay. Yet as with any job, it is vital to identify exactly what the role involves before accepting it and utilise the company so you benefit from your time there as much as they do.

Where are they advertised?
Internships are often now treated like regular employment vacancies and advertised on job sites and in national and local newspapers. "Careers fairs and company websites are also a good source of information about formal internships," explains Reaney. "But many organisations will offer unadvertised work experience so there's no substitute for picking up the phone and asking them."

How do you secure a position?
Such is the rate of youth unemployment that securing an internship can be just as tricky as securing a job, particularly in competitive industries such as media, marketing and publishing. "It is important to apply the same techniques and due diligence when filling out an application form or writing a covering letter for an internship as you would for a job," advises Reaney.

"The golden rule is to make sure that you have read-up on the organisation and understand their offering – who is their customer base, what are the company's goals and achievements, and are there any particular challenges they face in their markets?"

How do you utilise an internship?
The days of filing and making tea seem to be over for internships, as many companies now have a genuine need for extra help. Recruits often need to prove themselves before they are given responsibility however, so be proactive, efficient and ask for tasks if you are not automatically given them.

"Remember that a temporary work placement can lead to other opportunities. They're a great foot in the door towards securing a permanent role," explains Reaney. "This is your chance to show exactly what you are capable of. Use your initiative, complete every task with enthusiasm and make the effort to get to know your colleagues."