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No love for interns

Published:Sunday | December 2, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Avia Collinder, Business Writer

Internships could save companies millions in staff recruitment costs and by all indications more Jamaican firms are latching on to the opportunity to test fresh talent at low salaries.

But local colleges say not enough employers are willing to open up space for students seeking work experience or even the recently graduated hoping for a chance to prove their worth.

Such opportunities remain confined to a discrete number of firms, the most recent addition being GraceKennedy Limited.

Theoretically, internships give employers a well-educated, motivated college student the chance to assist them in the practical application of the latest business strategies and techniques at low labour cost, as cited by the Jamaica Employers' Federation, which runs its own internship programme.

Employers also gain the opportunity to recruit long term from a readily available knowledge pool.

That they do not is frustrating to the University of Technology Jamaica (UTech) which has some 11,000 students needing work-related experience as a condition of graduation.

"To answer the question - 'Have employers fully embraced cooperative education?' - The answer is 'No'," said La-Cresha Gordon-Brydson, cooperative education coordinator in the Office of Curriculum Development and Evaluation. "We still struggle to place our students."

Cooperative education is UTech's description of its internship programme.

"In the USA, Canada, Australia, UK, South Africa, etc, cooperative education is a big thing. Companies line up to take students right throughout the academic year. It is also a highly favoured recruitment model," Gordon-Brydson said.

"In some instances, there are industry partnerships with tertiary institutions to identify and train select students for specialised positions and this is ongoing."

At the end of summer, GraceKennedy (GK) announced that it would employ a select number of graduates as interns throughout the group, starting in January.

Digicel Group initiated its internship last year but its focus is on regional talent.

The programme was renewed in early November when seven interns from the University of the West Indies and the Anton de Kom University of Suriname were inducted into Digicel's second annual Graduate Acceleration Programme.

"At the end of their internship, they will be evaluated with the possibility of being offered a permanent position with Digicel. The interns will be spread across Haiti, Suriname, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados and Jamaica," said public relations manager Jacqueline Burrell-Clarke.

"We started in 2011 with a total of six interns and so far, two of these interns have been offered permanent positions within Digicel Trinidad & Tobago and an additional two have had their contracts extended with the hope of them being offered permanent positions come 2013," she said.

GraceKennedy announced its programme as part of its commitment to corporate social responsibility and nation building.

The food and financial-services conglomerate will give exposure to 10 "high-potential" university graduates with no prior work experience, to the "world of work".

Interns will be placed in positions that fit their area of academic discipline over a one-year period, and will be based on a 40-hour work week.

"Where possible and provided the intern achieves an above-average level of performance, full-time employment may be considered," the company said.

When GraceKennedy Group CEO Don Wehby annouced his company's programme at a UWI function in September, he appealed to companies to see graduates as potential assets and urged other firms to copy GK's effort.

"Let's not see hiring young graduates as an added cost. Let's see it as an investment in our own companies and, ultimately, in Jamaica," Wehby said at the formal launch of the merged Mona School of Business and Management (MSBM).

The type of focus being taken by GraceKennedy is precisely the tact that Gordon-Brydson believes companies need to adopt.

Internships should be treated as investments in human capital, which requires a longer-term outlook. Instead, employers treat it as a short-term quick fix, she suggested.

"If they do not have an immediate need there is no buy in. They do not value its importance to national development," she said.

MSBM master's degree programme in Business Management has an internship component, which is relatively new.

Of the students that select an internship over entrepreneurial ventures, 50 per cent of them have been made permanent job offers by the companies involved, said Student and Alumni Services Officer Dawn Morgan.

Gordon-Brydson said UTech has seen similar outcomes, saying that where internships are found for students, retention rates in permanent employment are high.

But she feels the programme should be doing much better.

"It should be more alive for us," said the work-experience specialist.

"They don't even want to pay the students for the most part. We have to insist. The worst ones are in the hospitality industry. They were broken badly with the HEART trainees. Because they started out with them they do not like paying money."

74 per cent impressed

A survey of 114 employers done by the Cooperative Education Unit over a three- year period, 2008-2011, found that 74 per cent rated the internship programme with high scores of four and five - with five as the highest possible score - on the issue of preparing students for the work world.

"Yet these favourable ratings have not resulted in overall higher levels of consistent industry participation in the programme. Further, despite the university's best efforts at marketing the programme, there remains a significant number of uncommitted business entities," said Gordon-Brydson.

"I don't think we, as a country, have fully bought into the idea of merit-based job placements. It is who you know," she said.

"But, there are a few companies that I must give the thumbs up to. They consistently participate in the programme and oftentimes use it as a recruitment option."