Today’s young Australians are the most educated generation we’ve had, despite this, they’re struggling to get their feet on the career ladder.
I am a sociologist who studies young people’s transition to work and how it is changing. With colleagues based in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, our Life Patterns Project years, tracked members of Gen X and then the Millennials from the end of their secondary schooling through their 20s and beyond.
We have watched ‘non-standard’ forms of work grow among young people to the point where that term no longer fits. Somewhere between Gen X and the Millennials, non-standard became the new standard for young people. Casual and short-term contracts and unpaid work, including internships, are now common.
Most of our Millennial participants were in casual employment at some point during their 20s. More than two-thirds have had between two to five jobs between the ages 23-27, with 12 per cent having had more than five jobs. In 2015, only a fourth of our Millennial group reported they expect to have their current job in five years’ time.
Despite crude generational characterisations, there is no evidence in our study that these young people value flexibility and variety over job security and a career track.
We have asked the participants a recurring question about the factors that are most important to them when looking for a job. The consideration that consistently ranks highest is job security – rated as more important than status, pay or flexibility. Confounding the stereotypes about the Millennials, they give more importance to job security than our Gen X group did at the same age.
These young people are responding to a changing labour market, in which finding an ongoing job and a sense of career progression has, on many measures, become harder, despite an unprecedented run of economic growth.
They want some job security because it helps build security in other aspects of their lives. In the words of one of our participants, after education the focus is “finding the job, keeping the job, housing... so everything, we’ve had to work twice as hard to get to the same spot”.
This is the context in which demand for internships is growing - as a part of increasing calls for better ‘work integrated learning’.
This generation’s predicament is captured in the growing propensity of advertisements for graduate jobs to ask for several years’ experience for an ‘entry level’ role. Increasing, employers want more than a grade and, as a result, young people are searching for new ways to bridge the divide between the classroom and the workplace.
These days, internships are spreading beyond traditional areas where unpaid workplace training was the norm, like medicine, nursing and teaching, to become common in professional fields such as law, finance and journalism, and across the so-called ‘creative industries’. They are increasing used in intermediate and entry-level roles across all kinds of work.
Volunteer roles with community groups or charities and well-structured internships through school, vocational or university education sit mostly on the right side of this ledger. However, there is evidence that some employers use internships or ‘trials’ instead of paying someone to perform labour, or as a sneaky way to undermine minimum wage.
The risks aren’t only for the interns, there are also examples emerging of employers being prosecuted, or even being sued by former interns for programmes that didn’t deliver.
Compared to countries like the USA and UK where the bad type of internship seems to be exploding, Australia comes out looking relatively rosy. A 2016 report for the Department of Employment found that most people were satisfied with their work experience, despite some examples of exploitation. 70 per cent reported that they developed relevant skills and knowledge and around one in four people in unpaid work experience were offered a job.
Although Australia is doing well, we’re not level with France, however, where all ‘stages’ (work experience as part of a degree program) must be paid, at least enough for rent, and wine.
As the pressure for more internships continues to build in Australia, we must make sure that these are the good type, not the bad, and that high-quality internships are not just for the privileged.
When they are exclusionary, internships function as a vicious circle. A lack of the right connections, cultural insider knowledge, and parents who can help pay the bills can make it impossible to access useful internships, in turn diminishing the connections that can help people to find quality, paid jobs.
We also need to tread carefully because poor regulation of internships can quickly cross from exploitation of the individual to a broader undermining of employment standards and diminish access to entry level (paid) employment.
To ensure we get internships right, there is a place for education; making sure interns and employers know the law and their rights, and are prepared to make the best of the relationship. But the right policy, sufficient regulation and rigorous enforcement of the rules are also essential.
Quality internships can be part of the mix, but they must not come at the expense of making sure that enough jobs, and enough quality jobs, are available for the coming generation.
University of Melbourne has recently launched Starting Somewhere, a 10-episode podcast series to help you find, land and get the best out of an internship – and turn it into a job. Head to: unimelb.edu.au/startingsomewhere
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