Industrial placement; Unpaid internship or start a business?

A degree of common sense?

As financial pressures continue to bite, and with many more students and graduates chasing after work experience, employers have found themselves in a strong position with regards to offering unpaid work placements.  Many degree courses expect their students to have completed some element of industrial placement enable them to proceed to final year.  In the current environment demand for placements outstrip supply.  Are the universities missing a trick?

When I was studying for my BSc Computer Science at the University of Ulster Coleraine I was fortunate enough to be offered a one year paid placement at Intel Corporation down in their manufacturing facility in Leixlip, Co. Kildare.  The role involved administering user accounts and privileges for the sites 4000 or so users as well as a further 1500 spread across its EMEA operations.  For my time there I was awarded a Diploma in Industrial Studies with Distinction.

The role wasn’t terribly taxing technically, which was a shame, but it did have the benefit of immersing me in an environment totally alien to me at the time.  The environment was that of an American lead multi-national operation exposing me to new concepts in management, new ideas and the relentless pursuit of success, revenue and profit.  It was an eye opener and a real experience.  Getting paid to do it was certainly a bonus but it was expected.  Back then within my peer group unpaid placements were effectively unheard of.

Do something or work for nothing

Now however there are an increasing number of companies who are offering unpaid internships.  This is fine for those in the financial situation to be able to afford to work for a year for nothing.  My dad always used to say that he would rather do nothing as work for nothing.  For those who aren’t in the fortunate position to do that it has to be the perfect time to work on their own venture.

Why work for someone else for nothing when student entrepreneurs could develop something for themselves with the aim of deriving some income?  What’s the worst that could happen?  They won’t make any money?  Not such a big issue if that was the other option in the first place.  Its probably the best time for young innovators and entrepreneurs to start something before they get indoctrinated into the world of work and the risk aversion that comes with it.  Heck they could even get some ideas here.


I can see that the universities might be reluctant to support such as scheme.  So what barriers are there to overcome?

There would be management issues with respect to the existing industrial supervisory role for instance.  Who would fulfil the role normally provided by the employer?  This could be filled by recruiting a suitable cadre of mentors from industry.  These mentors would act as advisors, advocates and monitor progress in a similar way to business mentors who support the work of the Prince’s Trust.

What happens if the students enterprise fails?

Can a failure really be counted as a success allowing the student to proceed to final year? Yes it can in my opinion.  Those people who have tried and failed to develop a new venture will certainly have learned more about their industry than those who have went on unpaid placements and ended up making the tea.  I have come across paid interns in previous roles who have spent the majority of their time on Facebook and watching videos on Youtube.  Could that really be better than someone who has tried to bring a product or service to market and failed?  I think not.  Those who fail will still be attractive to future employers.  They will have a portfolio of product/services they have created.  They may even have the genesis of something that other businesses may be able to nurture and grow given access to more resources and support.

What if they succeed?

Well if those who choose to set up their own venture during placement succeed then the university has succeeded albeit a year or two early.  After all one of UU’s aims is to “Contribute to the economic, social and cultural development of the region” whilst QUB sees itself as “a driving force in wealth and job creation”.  That doesn’t mean that they should lose a fistful of students who might otherwise have went on to pay more fees and graduate.  They should leave the door open for them to return and complete their studies.  Perhaps leaving it open for a period of 5 years.  If students can defer entry to courses there’s no reason why they can’t defer return from the placement element of their course.

Who finances the enterprise?

Like every other startup out there the finances should be down to the individual students.  Plain and simple.  That’s not to say those students who choose the startup option shouldn’t be allowed to avail of the university resources.  For the period of their first year as a placement startup they should still be classed as students therefore have access to the libraries, IT labs, and student spin out funds where available.  The cost to startup now for those in the web, mobile, and digital creative industries is lower now than ever.  With access to a laptop and a web connection the cost to entry is near as makes no difference to nothing.

Isn’t it time our universities considered offering a Diploma in Entrepreneurial Studies?  What do you think?