Internships: don’t be a King Canute: formal and informal connections

The call by Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, who made a call for an end to internships based on ‘who you know’ rather than ‘what you know’ raised hackles and claims of being hypocritical with his own career boosted through family connections securing unpaid work experience.

It also highlights the failure to recognise the parallel existence of informal and formal networks and the limitations of being prescriptive about one over the other.

And I suspect, it actually made people even more determined to gain any advantage for their offspring through their connections.

Asking an end to people helping their own children get on is what you would call a ‘Canute-like gesture.

Any strata of society and helping ones children is endemic, a fundamental reality.

I remember when I grew up in the East End of London, if you wanted to be a docker the route in to the job would be if your ‘Dad worked there’.

What Clegg would have been better arguing for is for more flexibility, recognising that what will happen, will happen, but supplement this with additional activity.

My old office in Wakefield was in a beautiful Georgian square opposite one of the country’s most successful independent schools. Frequently, we would get middle class parents popping the head around our door and asking if we could offer a work placement for the daughter.

We had some very good, conscientious candidates and it worked well: we gained some willing hands and the youngster got an insight into the world of working in PR, and crucially, another bit of content for their CV or UCCA form.

I reflected however, that we were ‘socially biased’. Being passionate about social justice and equality of opportunity, I thought we were not reaching out.

So, I checked out what was the worst performing school in Wakefield, dropped them a line with the offer of unpaid work placement for their pupils, who did not have the advantage of middle class parents who knew how to play the system.

To our surprise, rather than getting a young person who may have lacked focus, we got the opposite; the first lad had clear career ambitions. He wanted to be a doctor and I do hope we may have played a very small part in helping him to realise his ambitions.

So, the lesson for Nick Clegg with internships, is not to try to do away with the inevitable, but encourage people to use flexible thinking to go the extra yard, create their own mini outreach activity, in engaging with people they would not normally do.

By reaching out they will find they will then play a constructive part in encouraging greater social mobility. It might even encourage greater baby steps in the direction of ‘doing something’. It will help their flexible thinking skills by doing something unfamiliar.

And they may find that the world is not as clear cut, black and white as they first thought 

And they may even be in for a pleasant surprise – one of the wonderful qualities of life!

(And talking of ‘Canute-like gestures’ do not forget that the story of Canute trying to hold back the tide is a distortion of the truth: the legend of King Canute – and the same applies to the term ‘Orwellian’ – are the opposite to their original meanings: Canute arranged the stunt to show he could not hold back the sea in order to demonstrate his human fallibility and yet is now popularly remembered for the opposite!)

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