Summer internships: a struggle of inaccessibility or just survival of the fittest?

Is the increasing scarcity of summer internships impeding accessibility for young graduates?

As the days gradually lengthen and end-of-year deadlines loom in the near distance, many students take respite in the knowledge that the summer holidays are also on the horizon. Irish universities supply more weeks of holidays during the summer months than almost any other country in Europe. Summer holidays in the UK usually consist of between 12 to 14 weeks, while Croatian students can receive as little as six weeks’ break for their summer vacation. The lengthy nature of Irish summer holidays enables students to utilise this time for different purposes, and, for many, it provides the necessary opportunity to earn some extra income to see them through the following academic year. However, while the summer months are essential for many students to be able to afford the various expenses entailed in third-level education, it is also prime season for internship programmes. Summer internships are an excellent way of gaining experience, forging a career path, and making essential networking connections. That being said, the startling scarcity of internships available – along with an increasing amount of summer internships being advertised as unpaid – prevents a significant amount of students from availing of the internship experience.

In 2018, the Irish Times reported that Ireland sends more students to third-level education than any other country in Europe, and that Ireland currently has the highest proportion of young people with third-level qualifications across the EU. However, the same article revealed that 14 percent of new entrants to third level do not progress on to second year, raising the question: are we sending too many young people to university? Certainly, this is not strictly an issue being experienced in Ireland alone. A 2018 report published by the thinktank Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) claims that while the number of internships being advertised in the UK has risen in the past decade, there has also been a steady decline in the number of graduate-entry jobs advertised. This results in a surplus of qualified, eager young professionals being propelled into the working industry without adequate opportunity for straightforward entry into legitimate, full-paid jobs. This in turn enables corporations to advertise internship roles with little to no pay and receive a surge of applicants desperate to break into their chosen industry at whatever level they can.

“Young graduates are forced to choose between pursuing unpaid internships of indefinite periods or emigrating in search of work elsewhere.”

In this climate, the employers arguably hold all the cards. Young graduates are forced to choose between pursuing unpaid internships of indefinite periods or emigrating in search of work elsewhere. As such, there is a drive among students to secure an internship in the summers before graduating from university in an attempt to prevent this eventuality. However, the securing of summer internships is by no means a simple task either. Last May, the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) called attention to the fact that in order to enter into professional level careers – such as accountancy, journalism, and law – periods of unpaid employment are mandatory, prompting ACCA to call upon the Irish government to introduce measures as a means of combating this established practice. More recently, the nurses’ strikes were a clear indication that the issue is reaching a breaking point, with the industrial action being taken in part as a reaction to the inequitable nature of the unpaid, mandatory internships undertaken by student nurses across Irish hospitals.

The completion of a summer internship programme is becoming a staple requirement in job listings of major firms and organisations, without which a CV is deemed undesirable. This creates significant issues with regard to social mobility. For students who are unable to give up three months’ wages over the summer months, this results in job opportunities being limited and inaccessible at graduate level. An article by Investopedia cites the Fair Labour Standards Act in the US, which outlines that an intern may be unpaid for their work, allowing that the employer “derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and on occasion, its operations may actually be impeded”. This raises the fair counter-argument that in certain cases the training received by an intern is more significant than the advantages received by the employer as a result of the intern’s work. Nevertheless, the issue at hand is not so much a question of the legality of unpaid internships, but rather the inequality of unpaid internships being a major qualifier in securing graduate employment. The scarcity of summer internship positions prevents the majority of applicants from progressing up the industrial ladder of their chosen field, with the completion of an internship being a crucial rung.

“At times it feels as though every Instagram humble-brag post involves someone you know procuring an internship out of thin air.”

The pressures surrounding finding a summer internship are immense, and at times it feels as though every Instagram humble-brag post involves someone you know procuring an internship out of thin air while you’re struggling to receive so much as a response – even one in the vein of rejection. It’s important to keep in mind that even if you don’t manage to secure an internship for the summer – or possibly can’t afford to do one – you are, in fact, in the majority. The people who are accepted into internship programmes are the exception to the rule and being unsuccessful in finding an internship does not immediately equate with you being unemployed after graduation. The summer holidays are a brilliant opportunity to gain experience and plump up your CV, internship or no internship. Researching alternative roles or projects could lead to surprising opportunities, ones which could even be undertaken on the side if you need to earn a wage over the summer break. In the current climate, thinking outside of the box is key and keeping an open mind to opportunities will help you to make connections and expand your network. Everyone’s idea of success is different, and the same goes for each person’s individual route to success. At the end of the day, an internship may provide the next step up the ladder to success but in the bigger picture it is merely a step. Ultimately, it is endurance and perseverance that will enable you to continue the climb as you edge gradually towards your destination, no matter where your trajectory leads you.