A recent survey of employers in the United States revealed that 73% of them believe that third-level educational institutions need to put more emphasis on the “ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings through internships and hands-on experiences.”

In Europe, universities have traditionally been slower to embrace the vocational side of education than in the US. But the economic events of the past 5 years have caused a shift in attitudes: with high levels of unemployment among recent graduates, the necessity to add value to your CV by combining studies with practical experience has never been as clear.

In Ireland the situation is particularly grave: unemployment levels of almost 15% are bad enough, but the figure rises to a scary 25% among young people.

The government’s response has been to establish the Job Bridge Scheme: a state-sponsored internship programme intended to give job seekers valuable work experience while continuing to receive benefits. All of a sudden, people in Ireland are talking about internships.

The government claims that the scheme is a success, with the recent addition of a further thousand placements bringing the total number nationwide to six thousand. However, the programme has not been without its critics, with many pointing to the low-quality jobs on offer, and the lack of mentoring involved in some (a blog site has been created specifically to expose “hoax” internships).

So while internships have never been as topical, needed or (at least according to official reports) available in Ireland as they are now, their true value to a current student or recent graduate is somewhat unclear. Here are some points worth considering before deciding if an internship is right for you.

Costs vs. Benefits

In weighing whether or not to participate in an internship, some thought needs to be given to both what’s to be gained and lost. The investment of time that an internship involves – even those that are paid – is considerable when factored against a salaried position (presuming of course that one exists). When the placement is unpaid, the costs of living without an income may be off-putting to some.

But if the internship is of good quality, then it can and should be viewed as an extension of the academic course, with attendant costs not very different to those of normal classroom-based study. And then consider the benefits: the opportunity to put theory into practice; exposure to a professional field; increased maturity and self-awareness; expansion of social and professional networks; problem-solving abilities; and of course something meaningful to put on a CV.

Paid vs. Unpaid

It would seem obvious: a paid internship must be better. Certainly there are many who argue that the very existence of unpaid internships propagates a two-tier system, with those having access to funds being the only ones in a position to take an unpaid internship, meaning that those with lesser resources are always the losers. But again, most third-level students sacrifice financially to attend college in the first place; a true academic internship that provides good learning experience can be considered another aspect of a well-rounded education.

But paid internships are not without their difficulties: many have criticised paid programmes like Job Bridge for providing companies with cheap labour at the expense of professional job seekers. What’s more, a paid intern may be expected to perform at the level of a worker with experience, pressure that they may not be ready for. Finally, in the current economic climate, paid internships have become increasingly rare and competitive; if you want the experience an internship offers, you may have no choice but to do it without pay.

Domestic vs. International

Having considered the questions of “why” and “how,” we come to “where” – and as with the others, this decision come down to the student and their motivation for undertaking an internship. If the primary motivation is to indeed use the placement as a bridge to a job, then a domestic internship might be best for you; recently released government figures claim that 70% of those that have completed the Job Bridge scheme have received offers of employment. Likewise if networking is a strong motivation, the chance to make local contacts may point toward a placement at home.

On the other hand, if the motivation is to build a set of skills, increase self-awareness and independence, and above all learn to communicate and solve problems across cultures, then an international internship is for you. It is increasingly also for employers: in the largest global study of its kind a 2011 international survey of employers around the world carried out by QS found that 80% favoured graduates with international experience.

Where to Look?

Your Home Institution: Most Irish universities have internship opportunities on offer via the Careers Office. In some cases the degree/academic programme will have an internship component built-in, such as the INTRA programme at DCU. Leonardo da Vinci Programme: This funded vocational training programme allows EU citizens the chance to intern both in Europe and further afield.

Leonardo da Vinci Programme: This funded vocational training programme allows EU citizens the chance to intern both in Europe and further afield. Administered in Ireland by Leargas (www.leargas.ie).

AIESEC: With over 60 years of history, the world’s largest youth-led organisation is active in 110 countries worldwide, offering international internship and volunteering programmes to current students and recent graduates. To contact AISESC Ireland, go to: www.aisec.ie.

Job Bridge: State-sponsored internship scheme for active job seekers (www.jobbridge.ie).