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In 1970 one in ten of us had a degree. Now the figure is closer to one in four. Believe it or not, even some of us in shipping have degrees nowadays!

Jobseekers need an edge and very often that edge is an internship.

At Spinnaker we have seen a marked increase in the number of candidates with an internship or informal work placement on their CV so now may be a good time to assess their usefulness.

To get some sense of scale it is worth noting that the Big Four audit companies; Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) will employ more than 30,000 interns this year. In addition more than one-third of graduate vacancies in Britain are now filled from firms' own internship programmes. Internships are growing rapidly so what’s good and what’s bad about the intern boom?

Well, candidates can experiment with different careers, sectors and job types before they take the plunge. They are often helped in this by their universities who are keen to help their high paying students gain an advantage in the workplace. Candidates can also learn a lot about how the workplace functions, how to interact in meetings etc which will help them settle more quickly with their new employers when they do agree on a permanent role.

In return recruiters get a pipeline of candidates and the benefit of assessing them in the company's environment and in particular how they fit into their culture.

However there are downsides…

The number of unpaid internships has grown just as hiring has become riskier, pricier and more complex. In recent years anti-discrimination and unfair-dismissal rules have been tightened, and minimum wages raised, in many rich countries. The growing cost of benefits such as pensions, health care and maternity leave makes employees more expensive. Interns have therefore become an appealing alternative.

It is no coincidence that the most enthusiastic employers of unpaid interns tend to be those that generate a lot of menial work, and are glamorous enough to get people to do it for nothing.

The other issue is that it is most often the children of well off parents who can afford to take on an unpaid internship. Therefore employers could be missing out on talented people from less wealthy backgrounds.

On balance internships can offer a good deal for employers and prospective employees. However, as often is the way, the devil is in the detail. Employers would do well to offer a genuine educational environment for their internships and at least pay something to their interns – not only out of a moral obligation but to encourage the best talent to stay on after an internship and to attract candidates from a variety of backgrounds. Candidates should assess internships carefully and ensure that they don't just add a line on their CV but actually improve their skills and education.

And where does this fit into shipping? Well, there aren't that many formal internships in shipping but quite a lot of work placements do go on informally. What these indicate, and many employers are clear that they see it this way, are effort, commitment and evidence of a genuine interest in the sector. However as with other industries, it would be useful for there to be a more formalised system in place. When degrees are ten-a-penny, have work placements become the 'new degree'? It's possible that they can make graduates, especially shipping graduates, whose choice of degree also implies sector-commitment, stand out from the crowd.

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