Graduates on Network Rail’s training scheme study at HMS Sultan in Gosport

Internships can build confidence as well as experience, says Russ Thorne

“I was working three jobs and living in a bedsit. I was really poor and lonely and knew I needed to get out.” University of York graduate Charlie Elliot, 23, experienced the difficulties many students face after their degrees – the city they’ve called home for several years feels suddenly remote, while they remain unsure about how to begin a career or what to do with their new qualifications.

Her solution was to find an internship. She moved home and spent nine months working in the marketing department of a London law firm and now works as a social media executive.

“I knew I wanted to do marketing but I didn’t work out that I wanted to do social media until I’d been working for a little while,” she says. “The internship helped me focus.”

In a crowded job market, internships and graduate training schemes are becoming increasingly important.

Although there have been recent concerns over pay, they remain useful ways for graduates and career changers to gain experience and skills without investing in further academic qualifications, and are also attractive to employers. “Graduate training schemes and internships are extremely valuable to both the job seekers and businesses we work with,” says Michael Gentle, head of B2C marketing, Monster UK and Ireland. “They give employers the chance to test drive potential future employees and train new graduates from scratch.”

Schemes can last from a matter of weeks to several years. Naturally candidates might look for a programme related to their ideal career, or run by a dream employer, but it’s equally valid to look for schemes that will get them into work and picking up skills.

In the case of Network Rail’s new Track and Train scheme candidates work in various customer service related roles throughout the company over 18 months. “We wanted to help graduates,” explains professional development manager Linsey Perry, “to give them a chance to get some solid experience on their CVs.”

This approach can benefit recent graduates and career changers alike. Karl Grewar left a six year career in media to join the Network Rail Operations Management Graduate Scheme. “The aim is to expose you to as many aspects of the operational railway as possible,” he explains. “You end up seeing the world in a totally different light.”

Likewise, Elliot found that her broad internship was very helpful. In addition to learning the basics of marketing she helped her lawyer colleagues discover Twitter and LinkedIn. “That was the tipping point for my CV,” she says, as she was able to mention her experience on job applications and at interview.

To begin searching for a placement graduates can head to both mainstream recruiters and dedicated websites specialising in internships and graduate training schemes. There are other avenues to explore too: the Track and Train scheme was advertised through Job Centre Plus, while Elliot saw her internship posted on noticeboard site

Having identified a prospective scheme, there’s the matter of securing a place. “Competition is fierce so it’s crucial that students focus on building up their employability skills throughout university,” says Les Rees, director of careers and employer services at Cardiff University. He recommends current students get involved in extracurricular activities, find work experience if possible, and prepare themselves for testing times ahead. “The recruitment process will be tough so make sure you know what to expect and take part in practice interviews and tests.”

A further challenge is getting paid, which remains a controversial issue as there’s no guarantee that an internship will cover more than lunch expenses.

While manageable for some, it’s impossible for others. Gentle argues that businesses shouldn’t take advantage of graduates’ desperation, since internships “have proven benefits for both the employer and job seeker,” and stresses that paid schemes are out there. “Candidates must be proactive and knock on doors to uncover these sorts of opportunities.”