4 internship trends you can’t afford to miss when planning 2021

May 6, 2021 | Work experience/internships

What is the student experience of internships during a crisis? Prospects’ research reveals 4 trends that will be useful when planning 2021.

Last summer Covid-19 forced many employers to turn-off their internship opportunities, reduce the duration or find ways to continue virtually. Users of Prospects.ac.uk were surveyed at the start of the year to find out how this has impacted the student experience.

Here are 4 internship trends from the Prospects report, Early Careers Survey 2021: Work experience during a crisis.


Trend 1: Lack of work experience is a big issue for jobseekers

In May 2020 Prospects reported that a quarter of students had lost their work experience opportunity as a result of the pandemic and that the lack of opportunities was one of their greatest career concerns. Work experience vacancies advertised on Prospects.ac.uk declined 38% in 2020, compared with 2019. ISE’s Student Recruitment Survey 2020 reported that large employers had significantly reduced internships and placement opportunities in 2020.

The fallout of this is evident in Prospects’ Early Careers Survey 2021. Less than a fifth (17%) of students had undertaken work experience in the last 12 months. Students were more likely to engage with work experience as they approached the end of their studies, demonstrating the importance of these kind of opportunities in preparing students for work.

The lack of internships is already having an impact on young people’s ability to gain employment. The survey showed that the biggest struggle for university students when searching for jobs was having the required work experience for the vacancies they are interested in, with 64% citing it as an issue.

Offering some form of internship is much more beneficial for both student and employers than none at all, as evidenced in trend 3.


Trend 2: Despite the pandemic, work experience was predominantly face-to-face

Despite the majority of the UK being urged to stay at home for most of the last year and many employers changing their work experience provision to virtual programmes, Prospects found that nearly half (44%) of students had undertaken an internship in person and 21% had undertaken a blended experience. Just 35% had worked solely online.

Forty three per cent of first generation students worked in-person compared with 36% of those with two graduate parents. This could be evidence of digital poverty, which employers should be mindful of when considering how work experience is delivered this year.


Trend 3: Paid, longer-term and face-to-face experiences are most useful

The value employers place on students who have undertaken work experience is often evidenced by ISE. Its recent Student Development Survey reported 78% of employers found graduates who had completed an internship or placement were more skilled than those who had not. ISE recruitment surveys report that employers re-hire around half of their former interns.

This is echoed by Prospects’ survey, which found that three quarters of students said that their experience was useful in developing their skills. However, employers should be mindful that how programmes are delivered have an impact on how much value students get out of their experience.

Students found face-to-face opportunities more useful than those delivered online. This has implications for employers considering internships this year and whether a hybrid approach may be more valuable than a programme delivered solely online.

Generally, the longer a student spends on a programme the more value they deem it to be to their skills development. While 45% of students found a programme of less than one week very useful, 75% found an experience of six months or more very useful. Sixth form/college students were more likely to find value in an experience lasting less than one week compared to university students.


Trend 4: Unpaid work experience continues to be a feature of the student labour market

More than half (59%) of students surveyed had undertaken unpaid work experience with 83% of sixth form/college students working unpaid compared to 52% of university students.

Sixth form/college students are more likely to undertake work experience for shorter periods, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why this group was significantly more likely to work unpaid than those at university.

Female and BAME students were more likely to work unpaid – 61% of BAME students and 59% of White students, 64% of female students and 47% of male students worked unpaid.

When comparing the data to 2018, it appears that students are being asked to work for longer lengths of time without pay. Sixty two per cent of university students worked unpaid for more than four weeks in 2020/21 compared to 41% in the 2018 survey. The trend was similar in the sixth form/college group with 27% compared to 18% in 2018.

The main reason students gave for working unpaid was that they felt it was necessary to develop the skills and experience required by employers. However, students were less likely to find their work experience useful if it was unpaid.

While ISE employer members tend to only offer paid for placements, these findings serve as a reminder that although some types of work experience don’t normally come with a salary – such as those with a charity – it is illegal to not pay a worker. Even where there are valuable career-building opportunities, they are only open to those who can afford to work without payment, which raises concerns over fairness and can be a barrier to social mobility.


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