There are many things that might help to explain the proliferation of internships over recent years. Perhaps too many young people lack the ‘soft skills’ demanded by employers in the increasingly important service sector; perhaps there are too many young people looking for graduate level jobs in our low-wage economy; or perhaps many employers are unscrupulously exploiting the abundance of eager young graduates and blaming it on the recession. As always, it is probably some complex mixture of all three.
Whatever the specific reasons, I think this proliferation is a symptom of a general failure on the part of one generation to effectively discharge its duty to pass on a society and economy within which the next generation can thrive. This seems to me like a pretty big failure.
That being said, we are where we are, and even if national minimum wage law is enforced in cases of unpaid internships that can be shown to qualify as ‘work’, other forms of internship – paid and unpaid – are still likely to remain. I’ve argued before on this blog that internships should now be conceived of as a kind of near-essential training for the professions and, therefore, should be made accessible to all via grants and loans in the same way as higher education is. I must concede that this is very unlikely to happen any time soon, but one thing that could be introduced fairly easily is a kitemark for organisations offering top-quality internships. (An organisation called Internocracy was at one stage doing this, but it’s unclear whether or not they are still active.) This would recognise and encourage best practice, helping prospective interns (and potential future employers looking at their CVs) to distinguish useful and enriching internships from those that are not. If such a kitemark was introduced, the RSA would come top in class.
There are a number of reasons (apart from the fact that it is paid, which is obviously great) why my internship in the RSA Education Team has been so good. The first, and maybe the most important, is that is has given me some valuable skills and experiences that I did not have before. Perhaps the most rewarding was the opportunity (I call it an ‘opportunity’ now but at times it felt more like an impossible challenge) to design, organise, manage, and deliver an all-day event at the RSA in which 40 students from schools in the RSA’s Family of Academies came to discuss student leadership and design enrichment activities to be introduced in their school(s). Now I think about it, it is fitting that by planning an event in which students would learn about the importance of enrichment activities and design ones for themselves, I was actually enriching myself enormously. Another more recent example is the work that I have done supporting the RSA’s current research looking into in-year admissions in England, which has involved, amongst other things, helping to build, design, format and test a survey sent out to all local authorities in England.
Another reason why this internship has been so good is the fact that the RSA is such an interesting and enjoyable place to be. Coming in every day to work in a beautiful 18th century building which plays host to events and lectures from some of the most stimulating and groundbreaking speakers – including some of my favourite philosophers – has been a privilege. I don’t know what it was like to be around the RSA when Benjamin Franklin or Karl Marx were Fellows, but right now it feels like a place where imaginative, innovative and independent-minded people can come to discuss ideas (through debate and dissent, not brainstorming) and, most importantly, devise solutions to today’s most pressing social problems. I suppose that is what they mean by 21st Century Enlightenment.
The final thing which has made my internship at the RSA so great has been the staff, starting of course with the Education Team. Interesting and interested (I love that distinction), conscientious and collaborative, principled yet practical, light-hearted while hard-headed: the RSA is literally made by the people who work here, and they have made my internship the best it could have possibly been.
I’m now moving on to start a permanent job at the Citizenship Foundation, and no doubt my brief stint at the RSA helped me to secure that position. But I will most definitely keep close tabs on the goings on at the RSA, if only to see if it gets that internship kitemark.