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Opinion: JobBridge has very vocal critics, but it's delivering results for thousands of young people

Unpaid internships are largely the preserve of the well-off and reinforce disadvantage; JobBridge has levelled the playing field.

Séamus Conboy

LAST WEEK, a popular fashion blogger withdrew an advertisement for an unpaid internship after extensive criticism. Rather than showcasing everything that’s wrong with internships in general, it highlighted how the Government’s JobBridge national internship scheme can change what an internship is for the better.

There’s no doubt that given the skills and experience required and the functions of the position, the role offered by SoSueMe was a job, not an internship, and should come with a salary.

But sitting outside the JobBridge scheme, this internship was not subject to monitoring against abuse and displacement, and there’s no quality control.

Unpaid internships perpetuate social inequality 

A well-structured internship with one of Ireland’s most popular blogs would undoubtedly boost a candidate’s attractiveness for potential employers. But as an unpaid internship, only someone who could afford to live without pay for a period of months could take it up.

By providing a payment to participants, JobBridge ensures that internship opportunities, and the employability benefits that come with a good internship, are available to all.

Before JobBridge, internships were the preserve of the well-off, and acted to reinforce advantage (and disadvantage). Only young people with the means to support themselves could take up an internship.

While the brightest young person from a disadvantaged background might have to work immediately in a low-paid job to pay bills, support a family, or pay off college loans, a less able person with no immediate need to work can jump ahead in the employability stakes by completing an unpaid internship in their chosen field.

Levelling the playing field

These advantages at an early stage can translate into massive earnings differentials over a working life. Unpaid internships allow the benefits of a comfortable background to be passed on from generation to generation.

By allowing interns to maintain a social welfare payment and get a €50 top-up, JobBridge starts to level the playing field.

JobBridge has been a centerpiece of the Government’s response to a youth unemployment crisis. At its peak in 2012, nearly one in every three young people in the labour market was unemployed. Many more have emigrated.

Of all the challenges Ireland has faced in recent years, youth unemployment has the potential to leave the longest-lasting scars. With job opportunities so limited, an entire generation was at risk of being lost to emigration or long-term unemployment.

The JobBridge scheme has some very vocal critics. But for thousands of young people, it is delivering results.

The odds are stacked against a candidate who has never worked

Much criticism of JobBridge is rooted in a misunderstanding of what an internship is, or can be. More than just a step on the career ladder for university graduates – an internship or work experience placement can be the entry point to the world of work at all levels. It can help someone who has never worked prove to prospective employers that they have the work ethic and the core employment and communications skills needed for any role.

JobBridge adverts for unskilled positions – cleaning or stacking shelves in a supermarket, for example – have been a favourite target of the critics. There is some scope for abuse here, but these internships cannot be dismissed simply because they don’t fit our concept of what an internship should be.

With as many 26 people applying for every position at the height of the crisis, the odds were, and remain, stacked against a candidate who has never worked. Candidates with no work experience have no opportunities to gain that experience.

A well-structured internship or placement can break this cycle. Even for unskilled positions, an internship can allow a jobseeker to prove they can be reliable, trustworthy and a valuable employee. It is possible for a supermarket to provide a meaningful internship, that will develop skills and lead to a full-time job.

For many, this sort of intervention can be the difference between drifting into long-term unemployment, unable to break into the workforce, and a successful working career.

There have been some well-publicised instances of abuse

Is JobBridge perfect? No. There have been some well-publicised instances of abuse, and some rogue host companies have been barred from participating. An element of displacement is unavoidable, but independent evaluation suggests this is minimal. Some participants have had bad experiences and not completed their internships, although workers often quit full-time employment after bad experiences too.

Overall, the scheme must be considered a success. The progression rates are excellent by international standards: 61% of all JobBridge ‘graduates’ are now in paid employment. Most of these were kept on in their host organisations after their internship finished.

One friend of mine was three months into an internship when it was interrupted and he was offered a full-time job. His host company recognised his value, and moved quickly to retain him permanently.

Another posted on Facebook: “Finishing a nine month internship next week with a full-time job offer on the table! Who said JobBridge was a scam? #OnlyWhatYouMakeOfIt”.

Positive results  

These are just two of many positive experiences I’ve seen firsthand, and show beyond doubt a scheme that has delivered for the people in question. They make a fine counterbalance to the overwhelming negativity that has gotten so much airtime.

While it might be politically expedient to distance herself from JobBridge, Tánaiste and Social Protection Minister Joan Burton is very proud of the scheme she introduced, and what it has achieved to date. And she is right to be.

It has recast the function and purpose of internships for the better. It is a step towards a more level playing field.

It has ensured that thousands of young people, who otherwise would have been left to drift through the crisis years into long-term unemployment, could gain the skills and experience to compete for and win real jobs as the economy recovers.

JobBridge is delivering real results.

Séamus Conboy is Director of Client Campaigns at Red Flag, an International Strategic Communications and Public Affairs agency headquartered in Dublin. He tweets @SeamusConboy. Red Flag has not participated in the JobBridge scheme.

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