“Both employer and intern need to have the chance to gain something meaningful from the experience”

The start of the new academic year is upon us. For the Third Sector Internships Scotland (TSIS) team, that means getting set to launch our latest round of opportunities for students. Reviewing the job descriptions and expressions of interest from employers, collating feedback from past interns, and arranging visits to careers fairs and student associations make for an exceptionally busy period. Yet, amidst the hectic schedule, there is a need for ongoing reflection on the quality of the internships we offer and how to secure meaningful opportunities for students and their host employers.  

TSIS offers students from all Scottish universities the opportunity to make a difference to charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations through completing paid, supported internships. It is a unique example of universities working in partnership with each other and with third sector groups to enhance student employability, creating nationwide impact and local level change. Each internship has its own unique story of success and achievement, from establishing a food bank to developing new marketing resources for an inclusive dance company, research on assistive technologies to reinvigorating walking trails. Across the board, employers and interns value the programme highly and report an increase in their skills, confidence and capacity to act and take their plans forward.

So what’s been at the forefront of our minds when we have been developing our latest selection of posts? What are the features of a positive and meaningful internship opportunity?

Creating Meaningful Internships

The diversity of the opportunities that we’ve been developing over the last few months is as remarkable as the third sector organisations hosting them. At the heart of them all, though, is the host organisation’s interest in harnessing fresh skills and ideas to get a distinct and defined piece of work done. This is complimented by a clear focus on the learning and skills development of the intern. Both employer and intern need to have the chance to gain something meaningful from the experience.

As one of our alumni succinctly notes “The best part was that I was given my own specific project. I wasn’t going in to make the tea and coffee or respond to emails and stuff like that. I was given my own event to organise and I know other interns were doing different things, but all were given a specific project to do so it makes it worthwhile”.

The impacts of an internship go well beyond the 10 week period of work. Many students have gained employment as a direct result of their internship and host employers have gained funding, seen projects implemented, enhanced their capacity in research, marketing and an array of other areas. The benefits are clear – so we have been delighted this month to see employers coming back for their second, third and fourth interns.

A TSIS employer and intern

A Helping Hand

We’re also clear that developing an internship can be a daunting prospect, particularly for the small and micro organisations that make up the majority of our host employers. So the TSIS team provide a helping hand, support and guidance at all stages of the process, from developing a job description through to recruitment, and helping guide the intern through the internship.  One of the most challenging logistical tasks we have just been grappling with is support for shortlisting and interviewing candidates. Ensuring team members can help out at interviews across Scotland – from the Borders to the Highlands – is no mean feat. But we have had a TSIS team member on almost every interview panel and provided bespoke feedback to over 1000 interviewees. It is this targeted, practical support that has enabled organisations who would not otherwise have had the confidence or capacity to host a student to benefit from the skills and insights that an intern brings.

We’re also clear that internships are not just about jobs – they are about developing skills, reflecting on experience, and opening up opportunities for further learning and career development. So there’s a bespoke support package for students: comprehensive interview feedback to all interviewees, specialist careers advice and workshops to encourage effective communication of skills. And, most importantly, the security of knowing that there is support available on a day-to-day basis within the host organisation and from the TSIS team.

Opportunities Open to All

“Internships are not just about jobs – they are about developing skills, reflecting on experience, and opening up opportunities”

There’s been a lot of ‘bad press’ about internships in recent years, with a focus on the potential exploitative work relations that are established, the ‘elitist’ networks that mean that only the few can access key roles, and, most worrisome of all, the pervasiveness of unpaid internships. 

The TSIS team, along with colleagues from across the Scottish university sector, are committed to making internships as open and fair as possible.  All our TSIS opportunities are paid at Living Wage and are advertised openly to all students at Scottish universities. We’ve also been working closely with careers service colleagues to ensure students get support with their applications, to give them the best possible chance of succeeding. We’ve also recognised that fitting study, caring responsibilities, other work and career-focused placements and internships can be incredibly challenging. That’s why we’ve developed part-time internships alongside the more traditional full-time summer opportunities. These part-time posts offer the same degree of responsibility, the same depth of work and challenge, but over an extended period. Such a model works well for many students and, significantly, is preferred by a number of our host employers as it enables them to more effectively schedule the support and development of the intern’s work alongside other staff commitments. Being flexible and being fair means more employers and more students are able to apply for internships that can meaningfully help them meet their aspirations.

An Exciting (and Busy) Year Ahead

The TSIS team now have the exciting task of taking the opportunities for this autumn / winter out to students, to enthuse them to take up the challenges on offer, and to help employers select the right candidate for the post. It’s going to be a busy year, but also an incredibly rewarding one: At the heart of everything we’re doing are real opportunities for meaningful change – for students, organisations and communities across Scotland. 

Dr Martha Caddell is Co-Director of Third Sector Internships Scotland and Learning and Teaching Coordinator at The Open University in Scotland. TSIS is funded by the Scottish Funding Council and is led by Queen Margaret University, The Open University in Scotland, and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

Quality Placements is a NCUB Talent initiative that promotes student placements, internships and work experience that benefit learners, universities and businesses. NCUB research aims to understand the range of work experience activity across the UK and identify the features of a quality work placement, including the Quality Placements Online Report and a study of Computer Science placements for BIS.

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