Seanad debates

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

7:00 pm

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I thank the Minister for her presence. I put down this motion because I believe in internships. I realise there has been a good deal of criticism in the media in recent weeks about the programme but I believe in our having a national internship scheme. I am keen for the country to have an internship scheme because I have seen it implemented successfully throughout other European countries and the USA. It can be really positive. The reason behind the motion is my alarm at some of the placement notices which have been re-written in recent days. They made me think again. For example, one referred to a dynamic self-starter willing to work on their own. For me, this is not what an internship is about. I decided to talk to various organisations, employers and people currently on the programme to try to understand what was at the nub of the problem.

The programme in Ireland is aimed at small, medium and large companies. Many of the larger companies have experience of internships probably from their home base in the USA or European markets. As a country we are not as used to internships. This has highlighted the need for employers to be given guidance on exactly what constitutes an internship programme and how to ensure the person placed on the programme gets the necessary induction and on-the-job training. Employers should give a budget towards training of staff as appropriate or attendance at conferences or seminars depending on what they are doing. The employees will have been unemployed for some time and they probably will have something of a buzz because they now have a place and are now a part of something important. That is great but it lasts only a few weeks. How do we ensure there is an incentive and for the nine months they have ongoing upskilling, training and sharing? I am keen to ensure that the training programme is monitored. I welcome the Minister's commitment to evaluation. I have heard the Minister indicate that there will be continuous evaluation and I welcome that commitment. However, we must ensure that we amend the programme as we learn the lessons.

Mentoring is important and someone should be assigned within the company to each internee such that he or she has a role model, someone to strive for them and someone to show them the way. I welcome the programme. JobBridge is a good initiative on paper but I am fearful of how it is being translated on the ground. It has been shown up on the ground and it appears we do not have the experience or expertise within our companies. I am not anti-company and I believe in internships. Some companies are doing wonderfully but others do not have the experience and do not necessarily have someone in human resources. In these difficult times companies sometimes cut human resources services which are critical and those involved in internships are not getting the support. When introducing an internship scheme we must ensure the support is in place for the employers and those placed. A person in an internship should receive training so that when he or she leaves, he or she will know exactly what he or she is coming out with and what has been gained so that when he or she goes for interview for a great job he or she will understand how to translate those skills. One of the things we have seen in the market is the need for adaptability and flexibility of skills.

I tabled the matter on the Adjournment because I was concerned. I sought to ring an alarm bell and to ensure we take steps so that the internship programme works in the way the Minister intended. It should not simply be a job filler, it should be something a great deal more. As someone who comes from the community and voluntary sector I have seen how the community employment scheme became devalued over the years. My fear is that JobBridge will become devalued over time.

An internship should be something of which one is proud of on one's curriculum vitae. It has a standard. An employer should know that if someone has done a JobBridge internship, they had to go through certain hoops and that there was a certain level of training and standards. My concerns relate to those aspects of the internship programme and this is why I have raised the matter.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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I thank Senator van Turnhout for raising this important issue. Earlier today at 8 a.m. I was in Athlone launching a roadshow for internships. Many employers from the midlands were present. The Senator will be pleased to hear that we were discussing precisely the issues she has raised here. The JobBridge national internship scheme is the first time we in Ireland have tried a national internship scheme. The Government's aim in launching the jobs initiative in May was to begin the process of restoring confidence in Ireland's economy and to restore hope and confidence to the vast numbers of people who find themselves out of employment at present. These are great people who, because of the recession, cannot get an opportunity. We owe it to those people. If they are young people, we owe it to their parents, the mothers, to give them an opportunity to find a mechanism, in this very difficult economic situation in which the banks have left us, to get a foot on the employment ladder.

JobBridge is the first initiative operated under the new National Employment and Entitlement Service, a commitment contained in the programme for Government. The aim of JobBridge is to assist individuals to bridge the gap between unemployment and the world of work. JobBridge provides those seeking employment with an opportunity to undertake a six or nine month internship in a host organisation. Participants will benefit from learning new skills to complement their existing ones. On completing their internship, they will have improved their prospects of securing employment.

The international literature is very complimentary about internships being a positive opportunity for someone who has been unable to find a job. In the current labour market environment JobBridge provides individuals with a unique opportunity to secure work experience in a new field. The scheme enables people to break the cycle whereby unemployed persons are unable to get a job without experience, either as new entrants to the labour market after education or training or as an unemployed worker whose existing skills will not be appropriate to the type of jobs that will emerge in post-recession Ireland.

Since JobBridge was launched in July, it has achieved significant milestones. In excess of 2,600 internship opportunities are being advertised on the JobBridge website, In addition, as of last Friday, a total of 1,124 interns had commenced their internships. About half of these are new interns, totally new and fresh to the scheme. The other half are people who were on the previous scheme, the work placement programme. Interns receive an enhancement payment to their social welfare payment of €50 per week, whereas the work placement programme did not give extra funding. I decided to allow people on the work placement programme to transfer to the internship scheme in order that they could benefit from the extra top-up payment. This can have an important impact on quality and recognises the contribution the intern is making.

In recent days there have been suggestions internships are seen to be low-skilled. Once an individual meets the eligibility requirements - to be more than three months on the live register - he or she is free to apply for an internship, irrespective of whether he or she is an early school leaver or a highly qualified graduate. In the United Kingdom there are quite famous people who started out as interns. Three come to mind immediately: Mr. Cameron, Mr. Clegg and Mr. Osborne. Of course, they came from a very high level stratum of society. They were in the lucky position of having family and friends who were in a position to recommend them for internships. We are offering internships to everybody, regardless of whether they live in a council estate or have a PhD. It is important to bear this in mind. We are trying to create opportunities, not only for those who have circles of friends but for people in every town and county. The majority of employers are good employers and do not wish to abuse their employees. As a labour market activation measure JobBridge has a key role to play in offering very low skilled, as well as highly skilled, people an opportunity to improve their skill levels and connection with the labour market, with the aim of improving their chances of securing employment in the future.

It should also be noted that internships in the hospitality sector which was the subject of media attention make up only about 1% of the offers currently available on the JobBridge website. I was delighted that, at my request, this morning Fáilte Ireland presented a resource guide for companies in the tourism and hospitality sector with guidelines as to what is a good quality internship. It deals with all of the points the Senator was making such as mentoring, support and guidance, setting goals and providing a quality experience. It also refers, vitally, to the possibility of a company making space for an intern on a more permanent basis or giving him or her a very good reference in order that he or she can compete for the next job.

We have been criticised by employers who cannot get onto the scheme, while some people believe some of the internships ought not to be available. We have refused large numbers of would-be internships and gone back to employers to tell them they must look at what an internship is. We are also hoping to work with employers' organisations. We started in the hospitality industry. Fáilte Ireland produced the very good guide which is on its website.

Host organisations must declare in their applications that they are not displacing an employee and that they have no vacancy in the specific area in which an internship is offered. The JobBridge team check all applications against recent vacancies advertised on the FÁS Jobs Ireland website. If the JobBridge team suspects that displacement may be an issue, it can liaise with regional FÁS management to find out more information on the company. There is also a whistleblowing feature which allows any individual to inform FÁS of potential abuses of the internship scheme and all such cases are investigated. A variety of measures have been introduced in order that the internship does not allow the intern to work unsupervised. Some employers have been surprised at this measure and complained publicly. If someone is required to run a shop on his or her own, that is not an internship.

The intern must not displace an employee and must accrue significant experience throughout the entire internship. Internship opportunities have been removed from the JobBridge website in cases where companies had previously advertised them as paid employment positions. A standard internship agreement must be signed by the intern and the host organisation. This agreement clearly stipulates the terms of the internship. To ensure compliance with the scheme the Department of Social Protection and the employment services division of FÁS are monitoring internships to ensure they are of sufficient quality and that both host organisations and interns are abiding by the spirit and rules of the scheme. This involves the monitoring of monthly compliance reports that are required to be submitted by the host organisation verifying that the internship is proceeding as set out in the standard internship agreement. In addition, contact with the host organisations and interns, including random site visits, will take place shortly as part of the process.

The scheme has been on offer for only ten weeks and internships have only begun in recent weeks. Like a job offer, an internship takes a while to negotiate. As I said, a whistleblowing feature is built into the programme.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I thank the Minister. I believe she understands I raised this issue in a constructive manner. The example she gives of the Fáilte Ireland guidelines is exactly what I am talking about. However, that sector only represents, as she said, a figure of only 1%. We need to give such guidance sector by sector, employer by employer and host organisation by host organisation. In raising this matter I wanted to ring an alarm bell in order that we would have a planned programme of internships that would benefit everyone involved. Most employers are striving to do their best, but many need guidance. I hope the Minister, in carrying out the evaluation, will consider compelling host organisations to put a training budget in place to support the planned JobBridge programme.