Internships: the quest for quality

The call for quality internships for young Europeans is firmly on the agenda this year, having gained momentum at the European Commission at the tail end of last year with the publication of its Council Recommendation of a Quality Framework for Traineeships.

Setting the pace among employers is US technology giant Microsoft. With 700 interns across Europe they are the first company to sign the European Quality Charter on Internships and Apprenticeships.

In a nutshell, the proposals include:

- the presence of a written traineeship agreement
- clear indication of learning objectives
- respect for trainees’ rights under applicable EU and national law
- reasonable duration and restricted use of extensions and renewals
- strong emphasis on transparency

In November 2013, at a joint event organised by the European Youth Forum and the European Parliament Youth Intergroup, a wide range of stakeholders united to debate the topic, including Microsoft’s Senior Director of Institutional Affairs, Afke Schaart. Here she explains why companies need to realise what interns bring to them, not only what companies bring to interns…

Traineeships and internships have become an increasingly widespread way for young people to move into the job market. A recent Eurobarometer survey revealed that around half of the respondents (46%) had completed at least one traineeship. But there are growing concerns that many of these traineeships are not providing quality opportunities for learning and growth.

hw sp 14 5When interns are not properly valued by the companies they join, they are likely to suffer from such common shortcomings as limited learning content, poor working conditions and inadequate compensation. The same survey revealed the worrying fact the 35% of traineeship providers do not offer a written traineeship agreement and 23% of trainees are only offered a renewal of their traineeship contract, rather than being properly recruited.

By failing to providing a quality learning experience for interns and trainees, companies are in fact damaging themselves. They miss out on the opportunity to mentor the next generation of skilled, motivated employees and to grow future talent.

So why is it so important to Microsoft to take a lead on this?

Technological progress and adoption of the “digital society” has been identified as one of most important sources for potential growth and employment in Europe. Yet despite this, there are vast shortages of ICT specialists in the EU, forecast to reach up to 500,000 unfilled vacancies by 2015.

Microsoft’s YouthSpark initiative aims to help bridge the divide between high youth unemployment and the ICT skills shortage, by creating opportunities for education, employment and entrepreneurship for 300 million youth worldwide by 2015. According to recent McKinsey research, skill development and job creation are the two fundamentals that must be put in place in order to tackle youth unemployment.

Microsoft has identified supporting quality internships and apprenticeships as one of its three priority areas for 2014. We will continue to deliver on a formal pledge to scale high-quality training schemes as part of the Grand Coalition on Digital Jobs, providing 4,500 additional high-quality traineeships and apprenticeships in Europe by 2016 on top of the existing 9,000 placements.

At November’s EU forum, Microsoft predicted that there will come a time when companies will be rated on their good/bad internships. Indeed one site in the UK is already doing just that: What do you think of this initiative/site?

There is immense pressure on unemployed young people to fill the gaps in their CVs in the hope of entering the job market and gaining a coveted permanent post. But that is not an excuse for employers to offer low-paid, low-quality or unpaid internships instead of a genuine learning experience. An initiative such as the one you’ve mentioned promotes the idea that every internship should meet certain high standards. As the first corporate signatory to the European Quality Charter on Internships and Apprenticeships, Microsoft fully supports this principle. In fact, we would like to act as a civic locomotive and encourage other corporations to sign the charter.

What is your view on the internship market in the Benelux vis-a-vis UK or other parts of Europe?

The issue of substandard internships which do not provide a genuine opportunity for learning and development is a pan-European one, as demonstrated in the Eurobarometer report on the experience of traineeships across the EU.

For that reason, Microsoft’s YouthSpark initiative aims to create opportunities for 69 million young people across Europe, by providing them with the tools, training and placements to thrive in the digital economy. In Belgium, for instance, where youth unemployment is 22.5% and 15% of young people do not complete their secondary education, Microsoft YouthSpark supported the Network for Training Entrepreneurship (NFTE), which encourages disadvantaged young people to obtain their high school diploma, find a job or start a business. This support allowed the NFTE to train 486 young people in ICT and business skills last year.

In focusing on the potential for technology to elevate the employability of Europe’s youth, Microsoft is building on its 30 years of philanthropic experience and a long-standing commitment to strong community partnerships to drive our work. The digital divide – the gap between Europe’s skills and European ICT needs – is only widening and this is bad news for Europe’s economy. Only by empowering young people with quality education, skills and training opportunities we will be able to boost the digital economy – helping the youth of today create a real impact on their tomorrow.