Is the Government's internship scheme too little, too late?

As she packs up a glamorous evening dress from one of Madonna's favourite designers to send off as a celebrity sample, Pamela Ngomba can hardly believe her good fortune. After four months of seeking in vain for a work-experience placement, the history graduate has landed a temporary post as the assistant to the press officer of Issa, the fashion label of the Brazilian designer Daniella Helayel.

Already she has been given a lot of responsibility and hopes the internship will give her CV a boost and help her to find full-time employment. Students need all the help they can get this year as they seek work in the recession alongside the class of 2008, who are still job-hunting, and surveys have consistently shown that employers value evidence of time spent in the workplace.

Those with family connections or a university careers service with good links to local employers have a head start, and to help the rest the Government is launching an official internship scheme this September. Some say it is too little too late when 300,000 students are about to graduate, just over a half of whom are likely to seek paid employment. But the idea is to have a wide choice of places screened and available when the Graduate Talent Pool goes live in the autumn.

According to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Dius), there will be between 6,500 and 21,000 more new first-degree graduates unable to find work if job losses continue at the same rate as last year.

Ngomba, 22, got her internship through Wexo (Work Experience Online), a new internet company which matches graduates with positions in small companies and organisations which do not have the contacts with universities or the resources to run the sort of fully fledged internship programme offered by the big graduate employers. It is these small and medium-sized enterprises that are now being targeted by the Government and they are proving harder to reach. Most of the 40 employers who had registered by the date of a launch conference on 13 May were those which already have internship schemes, such as Microsoft, Network Rail and Marks & Spencer.

Officials from Dius say they plan to support 5,000 internships on a rolling programme for 18-24 year-olds. Those who have been claiming Jobseeker's Allowance for six months will be able to continue to claim for up to 13 weeks of an internship. Employers are encouraged to pay their interns or at least reimburse their expenses, but will be allowed to offer unpaid work experience or volunteer schemes. Dius will oversee applications from graduates and match them with internships placed on the website by employers.

The Graduate Talent Pool will run alongside grants to university career services to help them recruit extra staff to hunt out jobs in the downturn. In addition, £75m is being put in by the Department for Work and Pensions for a scheme to help 50,000 long-term unemployed young people to get social-care traineeships.

It includes a new national management trainee scheme to encourage graduates and executives to move into the social-care sector where there are serious skills shortages. Run by the National Skills Academy for Social Care, with the support of the Department of Health, it will offer a year of management and leadership experience for 20 recent graduates within the private, voluntary and public sector. Trainees will receive a bursary of £20,000 in 12 monthly instalments and be expected to register for a management and leadership qualification appropriate for social care.

Recruitment organisations have welcomed the moves, but question whether the Government will be able to find and maintain enough openings to meet the demand. It is unlikely that the big graduate employers with well-established internships will commit to taking many more graduates than they do already, says Martin Birchall, the director of High Fliers, the market research company.

"To get a big increase in the amount of work experience on offer, the Government will need to get small and medium-sized companies involved," he says. "We don't work with this size of company, but from talking to the universities it appears things are worse for the smaller companies which take one or two graduates where the internships are drying up."

The biggest graduate recruiter, PricewaterhouseCoopers, is supporting the Talent Pool by offering advice and support to companies setting up internship programmes for the first time, but has not signed up. "Anything that can help graduates improve their employability and kick-start their careers has our support, but we already provide internships for 1,000 students a year and 92 per cent of them end up working for us," says Sonja Stockton, its head of student recruitment.

Saj Jetha, the managing director of The Smarty Train, the consultancy which advises on graduate recruitment, says he would like to take on an intern and believes many other small companies could benefit as they use the economic downturn to work out new strategies. Smaller companies, however, may worry that they do not have the time and the staff to give graduates sufficient challenge and support, he says.

Reaction from organisations working with interns is mixed. Robin Kennedy, the chief executive of Wexo, said small and medium-sized companies were in the greatest need of talented and skilled students, but lacked the resources to recruit them. "The fly in the ointment is that students are about to graduate, but the Graduate Talent Pool does not go live for a few months yet," he said.

Chris Wickson, the co-founder of Ratemyplacement.co.uk, which carries student reviews of their internships, says it is wholeheartedly behind the initiative, but concerned that employers may switch the valuable work experience from first and second-year students to the graduate scheme.

And from students comes a word of caution – most graduates are deep in debt and will struggle to afford unpaid or low-paid internships, says Ed Balcomb, who is job hunting after graduating from the University of Cardiff with a 2:1 in business administration. He has set up his own work experience by running an online eBay store.

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