The Eternal Intern, or why it is so hard to find a paid job

White keyboard with close up on work buttonSo you’ve got your degree, and you are ready to take that first or second step on your career ladder – but all the jobs you find that meet your profile are only open to an intern. Esther O’Toole takes a look at the minefield surrounding today’s internships.

 

‘Is it just me, or is anyone else sick to death of seeing seven out of ten job ads asking for interns? […],’ wrote Leigh Cann, designer and curator at AfricanArtbeat.com, on LinkedIn recently.

Cann was drawing particular attention to the seemingly widespread use of internships to fulfill what used to be freelance or full-time paid positions for juniors. ‘Interns get paid either nothing or very little,’ she wrote. ‘They are doing multiple internships, landing up in an endless cycle of no pay, desperate to get that much-needed experience.’

 

It did strike a chord. Searching for freelance work online of late you might come to expect at least a third of postings to be for internships. Though the case of the ‘eternal intern’ is well known in the US and Britain, here in sensible old Holland there must be rules for internship practices to stop young, talented workers being exploited. Right? Yes, of course there are.

Students

Technically, Dutch law requires that interns be either an EU citizen or enrolled in a higher education course. For those coming to study from further afield, there are specifics on visa requirements and they will have to stop after their course of study is finished. Though there is no law to require businesses to pay interns anything there is, in general, a stipend of between €200 and €300 on offer.

However, when companies have a list of desirables as long as your arm, require a full-time commitment for at least six months and give very little information about what you get at the end of the term it begs the question – are these rules working?

A stipend of €250 for a 36-hour working week in one of the major cities can’t possibly allow for independent living and smacks of inequity. How do you know as a newcomer that your internship will really help enhance the chances of building the kind of career you’re after?

Unemployment

The Dutch social affairs and employment ministry says it is working to get to grips with the question of internships. ‘There are initiatives in place now; getting a better grip on youth unemployment, improving the transition from education to work and LeerWerkLoketten,’ spokeswoman Hayat Eltalhaui told DutchNews.nl.

The LeerWerkLoketten (Learning & Work Bureaus) aim to provide easily accessible advice about rights, obligations and the transition from education to work for both (young) workers and companies alike.

However, while there are no plans to introduce a minimum stipend for interns, measures are in place to punish companies which break the rules. ‘Fines have increased and in the case of repeated infringements work can be halted,’ Eltalhaui says.

Benefits

Start-ups in particular rely on an ever-expanding pool of ‘interns’ to tide them through the first months and years – without them the company would be financially unviable. A property firm in Amsterdam is currently advertising for an administrative intern to basically run the office, do the books and manage the company’s social media strategy. The pay? ‘To be discussed’ says the advert.

Responsible employers make sure they meet the government guidelines. It is not unusual for larger corporations to offer around €500 a month stipend, travel costs or access to a whole range of normal employee benefits. This in conjunction with a clear development trajectory that should lead to real employment prospects at the end of the term, either with that company or elsewhere. However, these are competitive and are in no way the norm.

Robbert Coenmans, the current chairman of the FNV Jong – the FNV trade union’s youth division – remains sceptical.

‘We do see this as a growing issue. A considerable [youth] group has lowered their standards, mainly because of the high rate of youth unemployment,’ he says.  ‘Perhaps four years ago an (unpaid) internship after finishing an education would not be a viable option for most people. Now it is. This seems to be a growing trend born out of desperation … which is handy [for employers] if you want to cut your costs.’

In addition, he says, a complaint to employment ministry inspectors or to the union ‘would cut their chance of actually being hired, so no one complains’.

Cost-cutting

The picture remains unclear. Are companies working towards developing the next generation of employees or simply cost-cutting?

The Waldorf Astoria hotel in Amsterdam, for example, is currently looking for a housekeeping intern who will be ‘responsible for cleaning guest rooms, replenishing amenities and supervising room attendants to deliver an excellent guest experience while monitoring housekeeping standards and assisting the head housekeeper.’

While a way into one of the world’s most high profile hotel chains is a great opportunity, how can you be sure any internship will be beneficial enough to be worth the low pay for doing a full-time job?

Emke Daniels, HR expert and one of the founders of HR Community, works a lot with young starters and sees them wrestling with this problem regularly.

‘Employers are looking for people with experience, but are not prepared to invest in building that experience. Or if they are, it’s a very low investment. But there is also good news on this front – such as our work with the starters scholarship scheme (Startersbuurs) These [scholarships] stimulate employers to give young people a chance by providing a financial contribution to their pay. The construction is not an internship but a real work experience.’

Permanent job

For many interns the ‘real work experience’, one that couldn’t be gained in one single paying position, was always top of their list when it came to the pros of interning. Bart Sturm, who interned with his current employer before being offered a permanent position, says the company was extremely flexible.

‘I could help and get experience with many different activities. This is harder as an employee, and it’s impossible in many organisations, but Peerby was happy to let me get involved in any area I could. I still reap the rewards of having worked on several parts of the business,’ he says.

With the economy picking up one must hope that employers will be increasingly keen to hang on to good workers and be prepared to pay for them too. More starters’ schemes are surely to be encouraged. If you’re embarking on an internship advance with caution. Search well and use the services available. Research your potential employer properly, particularly if they are a start-up. Be sure you’re clear about the terms of the internship and the benefits it will bring. For everyone concerned.

For more information on internships in the Netherlands and your rights check out these sites for interns and student placements:

http://www.studyinholland.nl/

https://www.lerenenwerken.nl/leerwerkloketten

http://www.fnvjong.nl/

http://www.hrtalent.nl/hrtrainee

http://www.startersbeurs.nu

Esther O’Toole is a freelance writer and creative development director at Quint Creative. www.quint-creative.com