Internships need to make sens(e)

AUGUST 20 — Fresh off the successful and timely lowering of the voting age, I am glad that the Ministry of Youth and Sports is working on another glaring gap in youth empowerment — financial remuneration for interns.

And while this has yet to be legislated to include all employers, the recent Cabinet decision to increase the pay of government interns to RM5 per hour has been an encouraging step in that direction.

Looking back, the internships that I have undergone have been periods of extreme personal and professional growth. I picked up new skills, broadened my network and was able to get valuable one-to-one interaction with people from my field and beyond.

I was, however, immensely lucky that they were both paid internships.

Free interns?

Now, if you had have asked a 21-year-old me whether I would do those internships for free, there would definitely be some hesitation.

Given that interns are usually either still studying or in the early stages of their career, not paying them means that they would have to fork out their own money for subsistence. And if the internship is in another region or state, then there will be accommodation and transport expenses to contend with.

Such amounts of money might just be out of reach of the intern.

An example of this taken to the extreme are the prestigious albeit unpaid United Nation (UN) internships. In 2015, news broke of David Hyde, a UN intern who camped in a public park because the accommodation in Geneva was “more expensive than he imagined.” He ended up leaving.

Employer perspectives

Many argue that the intern is not expected to contribute much but instead will gain intangibles from the experience. And that this value far exceeds what the intern will be spending in the short two- to three-month internship period.

That might be true. But do employers really want interns who come into work hungry or untidy because of bad living conditions. More than that, will these interns have the initiative to contribute at all given the lack of incentive provided?

There are also concerns that legislating intern wage will discourage companies or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from taking in more interns or any at all.

This is since such a law will force organisations to pay their interns a standard rate. Hence, there needs to be consultations before such a decision is made.

If not, youths of this generation will lose the opportunity to encounter life-changing experiences that will shape entire careers.

Perhaps it is best if employers look at this issue from a welfare perspective.

If an intern is not being paid at the rate of entry-level positions, it is only right that the employer ensures their welfare is taken care of, with food coupons, travel allowances or parking subsidies being the bare minimum.

Role of institutions

Aside from the pay, I argue parent institutions must play a more active role in the placement of students to optimise their internship experience.

In most local universities, it is encouraging to see that internships are a compulsory part of the diploma/degree structure. However, most of these institutions provide limited support to ensure their students obtain suitable internships and once deployed, make the most out of their experience.

Throughout my degree, my cohort was not exposed to the importance of internships nor were we given any preparatory training like resume/cover letter writing.

As a result, many of my peers opted to attach with a lecturer for the period of their compulsory internship.

This problem can be easily addressed though. Various universities abroad have dedicated officers or even an entire department focused on student internship placements based on individual field of study, interest and capacity.

Expectations and reality

At the end of the day, the onus is really on the intern to make the most of the experience.

In choosing internships, I urge prospective interns to balance monetary gain and potential skills learnt. Prioritise internships for maximum personal and professional growth. When given the opportunity, be keen to engage, ask questions and try to be useful to the organisation.

Just remember, you’ll never be a millionaire through your internship, so choose one that makes sense.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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