Work in Progress: The Intern

Work in Progress Career Human Resources

It seems in general that the traditional three career stages of education, work and retirement have been expanded since the turn of the millennium with a separate stage of ‘internship’. The phenomenon of the internship has since changed from a planned transitional aid and an interim stage to a genuine (career) stage. This stage can also last for significantly longer periods of time than some interns may prefer. The result: traditional milestones in life planning such as your own home, starting a family and having children are postponed more and more on account of the lack of financial security. Sometimes all that remains is the chronic frustration of moving from one temporary solution to the next without finding your permanent place. 

This basic scenario has now made its way into everyday vocabulary as a familiar phrase with the so-called “internship generation”, suggesting that the phenomenon does not involve special individual cases but is becoming a real trend in the labour market. It is a trend that is arousing loud voices in the media who are calling for statutory regulation.

Basically a good idea

It is of course hard to find anything wrong with the idea of an internship. This practice, which goes back to the 17th century, is basically aimed at enabling individuals to gain in-depth knowledge and skills at an early stage. As such the internship is ideally a temporary link or a supplement to education, with the focus on gaining practical work experience. In this regard the internship acts as a useful aid for getting started and finding your way in the (often confusing) expanse of the working environment.

Particularly at times when careers are subject to increased specialisation and academisation (the reality of the 21st century), the internship promises to re-establish a link between education, which is becoming increasingly theoretical, and the actual demands of the practical working environment. So much for the original meaning of the term and its promises.  

Here comes reality

How does the situation really look today? Not too good, it seems. A development took hold around the end of the 1990s which has duly grown in recent years: steady institutionalisation of the internship in many areas of the economy. Interns today are fairly often seen as cheap temporary workers who are meant to or who must replace all the activities of an employee who is “employed regularly”. This means the same work for less money. Labour law experts talk of “undisclosed regular work”. The practice not only saves costs for some companies, it also releases them from almost all legal obligations on account of the vague legal provisions surrounding internships. Collective agreements? Protection from dismissal? Minimum wage? Not a chance – in the world of the intern.

And what happens when the internship comes to an end? They look for a new intern. There are plenty of people out there looking for internships. So there is much left to be desired in terms of the original idea of training development as part of an internship. It seems instead as though the internship in its present form has become a predominantly economic calculation factor.

Hope dies last

Yet if things really look so grim: what incentive is there for young people to complete an internship or even several of them? Considering the problem of the discrepancy between the numbers of those looking for work and actual jobs, an internship frequently offers the only decent option for making an initial connection with the world of work and for being able to clearly demonstrate the demand “I’m eager to learn, am flexible and can adapt to any situation” in a candidate’s CV. This is all with the aim of (hopefully) coming closer to finally finding regular employment.

Coming soon

Media coverage remains a well-known initial step towards changing the status quo. There are also actual signs that the political discussion in quite a few European countries is already increasingly addressing this issue. Minimum wages for interns, time limits and social safeguards in the form of pension and health contributions have long been discussed. Various organisations are doing their part as well: in Austria for instance the “Plattform Generation Praktikum” (platform for the internship generation) association linked with the Chamber of Labour and the Austrian National Student Union is attempting to record the current situation using studies and to provide a focal point for those affected. The association’s activities include providing seals of approval to companies which stand out positively in terms of the internships they offer. This in turn illustrates a crucial point which has not yet been mentioned: despite all of the previous criticisms, there are fortunately also positive examples of internships and some of them go far beyond the original intentions in this area. These are internships which, rather than be a dead end for the candidate, offer them a real opportunity.


Marlon Schuhfleck