A stepping-stone to success

In September, the Central Statistics Office reported that the number of unemployed persons had more than doubled from 126,700 to 264,600 in the space of a year. Figures like this illustrate the problems facing recent graduates, who entered their courses when widespread unemployment seemed as much a thing of the past as the Aran sweater.

Cable-knit is back in style and were it not for the current global recession, one-way tickets to the US and the UK may well have resurfaced. Many graduates are now opting to continue their education as post-grads as an alternative to a year or two spent in potentially fruitless job search. However, a few months or even a year spent as a volunteer or intern could be a more fitting alternative for those who already have postgraduate qualifications, for those intent on doing something a little different, or for those to whom spending any longer in academia would be anathema.

FÁS have just recently launched a work placement scheme for people who have spent at least six months unemployed and who are currently receiving the Job Seeker’s Allowance, with half of the placements on this scheme going to graduates. The Work Placement Programme offers participants an opportunity to gain work experience for half a year without sacrificing the income from their allowance. However, graduates of 2009 are not eligible for the scheme and spending six months jobless in order to qualify may not be so appealing to those who have only recently begun ineffective job searches. The best approach for many could simply be to blitz firms, companies and research groups relevant to their proposed career trajectory with e-mails asking for work experience. Some groups may find that taking on interns is more hassle than it’s worth, others will be glad for the extra pair of hands and the new source of ideas. Internships don’t only have to follow the 9 to 5, office in the city centre formula – for those interested in humanitarian work, Irish Aid is funding sixteen positions for UN volunteers who will work for twelve months in a UN field office and gain experience in development work.

All of this begs the question of why anyone would tie themselves into unpaid work when a job opportunity with a decent salary could potentially emerge a few months down the line. Well, firstly, taking action is probably a better idea than remaining idle and relying on what could turn out to be a pipe dream, considering the current economic state of affairs. It also offers an escape from the vicious circle of requiring experience to get a job, but not being able to get experience unless hired. Participating in volunteer and internship programs related to your desired field can also indicate to potential employers that you are so committed to the work, you even did it for free. Another reason to intern or volunteer forms part of the philosophy of popular study and careers writer Cal Newport; he asserts that impressing employers with an extensive list of extracurricular activities often isn’t as effective as doing something which lies outside of the norm and makes employers wonder about how you went about doing it. Volunteer work and internships can offer participants the opportunity to work on unusual projects, and even highly conventional programs supply the hands-on experience needed to start one’s own impressive pet project. 

Work and volunteer experience are also invaluable at undergraduate level, firstly to make a CV look better and secondly, to offer a more rounded experience of one’s field. With many students with J1s having spent the summer unemployed in a different country, a rethinking of how the summer abroad is spent may be in order. Plenty of universities in the US organise summer schools which are often highly focused but with a practical element. Some of these even have all-inclusive scholarships for applicants. Because students in the United States are expected to participate in internship programs during their undergraduate years, there are plenty of intern positions made available during the summer in publishing, business, economics, law and many other disciplines. Organisations as prestigious as the Federal Reserve are among these internship providers. It may be more challenging than washing dishes in a restaurant or carrying clothes from stockroom to shop floor, but interning in the US (or any other foreign country) offers both a summer abroad and a career opportunity.

In large universities such as Trinity, getting a chance to volunteer or get work experience rarely requires more effort than filling in a form or putting a name down at a Freshers’ Week stand. The Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program and other SFI-funded UREKA schemes offer experience to undergraduates in the sciences and in engineering, as well as the opportunity to network with researchers in their fields of study. There are many volunteering opportunities in college as well, and although getting involved with demanding programs such as Suas simply to spruce up a CV can often end in disaster, working with charities can give insight into potential future careers. For example, the Voluntary Tuition Program offers students the opportunity to work with primary and secondary school pupils as academic tutors and activity supervisors, and can give students tenuously considering careers as teachers, counsellors, social workers or educational psychologists an impression of what it’s like to work with children and teenagers. And of course, participation in the SU can be the first rung on the political ladder.

Time is money, and as cringe-worthy as that saying is, it does ring true is a world where all actions have monetary value. Time spent as an unpaid intern or volunteer is more valuable than time spent on a job search in an unfriendly economic climate.