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19th Jul 2018

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Internships: A mixed blessing for young Europeans

  • European Parliament president Schultz showing trainees around in Strasbourg (Photo: European Parliament)

An internship can be a great opportunity to enter the European job market, but it can also turn out to be an unpaid, menial work.

Tinkara Oblak from Slovenia has had both experiences in Brussels.

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She had one internship in the European Parliament, where she worked for Slovenian MEP Milan Zver.

“I learned a lot”, she told this website. Oblak did translation work, prepared outlines for the plenary session, and was given time to attend committee meetings she was interested in.

She was there for one month initially, but was asked to stay another five months.

A second internship, at the Slovenian permanent representation to the EU, was not so successful, Oblak said.

“It's a shame what they did with internships. They didn't pay me, they were sending me to technical working parties without informing me what they were about.”

“They wanted me to make coffee for them. When I confronted them, they said I was disrespectful. I resigned after one and a half months.”

The quality of internships varies widely across the EU, and within countries.

According to a 2013 survey of young EU nationals, almost half the respondents had had an internship, also known as a traineeship.

But 28 percent of former interns thought their experience wasn’t helpful in finding a job.

To improve the quality of internships, the European Youth Forum, of which Oblak is a board member, released An employers' guide to quality internships on Thursday (12 March).

The 20-page booklet contains tips like: “make an initial assessment of what the skills needs of the company are”; or make sure “an intern has clear, written learning goals that need to be achieved”, and “establish a monthly assessment for the intern to review progress and satisfaction”.

The guidelines may sound self-evident, but even in popular spots like the European Parliament, they aren't always adhered to.

Bryn Watkins has just finished an internship at the EP, and when this website asked him to check if the guidelines had been applied to his post, he said a number of the requirements had not been met.

“An intern has clear, written learning goals that need to be achieved? No. An intern has regular meetings with their supervisor to monitor progress? No”, he said.

On the whole, Watkins found it a good experience.

“I was given genuine responsibility. It's paid well enough, so that anyone can do it”, he said.

But being paid for an internship has become the exception, rather than the rule in Europe.

According to the 2013 poll, only 18.4 percent of Europe's interns said they were paid enough to cover basic living costs. Fifty nine percent said they received no compensation at all.

Here too, practices vary widely across member states.

In Belgium, only 19 percent of polled interns were paid at all. In Slovenia on the other hand, 81 percent were paid.

The European Commission has spoken out against the practice.

“Traineeships can't be a cheap substitute for regular jobs”, said Julie Fionda, a member of employment commissioner Marianne Thyssen's cabinet.

“They have to provide educational content.”

But the EU has little power in educational affairs. The commission can support programmes, but EU member states have full authority over education law.

A year ago, the EU member states agreed to a statement aimed at promoting quality traineeships in all countries, but it was a non-binding recommendation.

Some of the representatives of companies who went to the presentation said they believed they could change the landscape for interns without government interference.

Laurent Freixe, executive vice-president of food giant Nestle, said he opposed the idea of minimum compensation for interns as it might dissuade companies from hiring anybody.

“I'm afraid this could be counter-productive … I prefer leading by example to over-regulating”, he noted.

EU interns to rebel against unpaid work

Young people will gather in Brussels on Monday to protest against hundreds of unpaid traineeships offered by the EU institutions each year.

EU states must act on youth poverty

Campaigners say young Europeans need better quality jobs and contracts, after a UN agency documents how hundreds of thousands of young workers risk living in poverty.

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