Can We Fix Jobbridge?

September 7, 2011

IRISH READERS: Please skip to the next paragraph. For non-Irish readers, Jobbridge is a National Internship Scheme, which has been developed to help those who have lost their jobs to gain experience and/or upskill. The programme has been subject to some criticism as there is a belief employers are exploiting it – and that furthermore, there is nothing to stop unscrupulous employers from exploiting those who are out of work.

The past couple of weeks have thrown up more bizarre positions on the Jobbridge website.  Many of the “internships” being advertised appear to certainly be entry level (or higher) roles – jobs that people should be getting paid to do. This is causing deep concern, and rightly so. Not just concern that employers are getting free labour, subsidised by the government. Some have pointed out that they have lost income as contractors – because work they would have pitched for is now being done by “interns” for free.   Some interns have pointed out that they are the only person performing a specific function within the companies where they are working.

In fact, a Tumblr blog is now listing some of the worst offenders.

What this post is about:  In light of all this, I would like to consider some ways in which the scheme might be made to work as a  proper internship programme, offering real value for those who are enrolled.

What this post is not about: I’m avoiding critiquing specific roles (I did that in my last post) or the range of positions advertised on Jobbridge, as I believe they are adequately dealt with elsewhere. (The Tumblr blog I’ve linked to collects them, alternatively, search #jobbridge on Twitter, and you’ll see plenty of complaints or positions that appear to be improperly advertised)

Here is a summary: Jobbridge lacks three vital ingredients which must be addressed to improve its reputation and usefulness:

  • Employer effort (not just the effort of taking on staff – but the effort of contributing to a workplace learning and development programme)
  • Defined training paths, which prove that the internship is – in fact – an internship and not a free-labour scheme
  • Accreditaiton and certification, which benefit both candidates and organisations by defining a skills range and level and benchmarking it so that employers and employees have a common reference point when discussing ability

In short, Jobbridge might be fixed by applying a structured training and development framework to it. In this post, I’ll map out my thinking in reaching this conclusion and list some ways in which these vital ingredients can be included in the mix.

Here begins the post

Jobbridge is meant to be about internships.

An internship should be a position specifically created to train young (usually professional) person in applying learned knowledge to a role, or set of roles (this is my own broad description).

The point of an internship is that the candidate can learn how to bring together various and diverse knowledge, skills or approaches in order to perform some role. For example, as an instructional designer, one pulls together knowledge of learning styles and learning design, computer skills, some insight, and certain approaches to develop learning content. All of these specific skills/knowledge may have been learned elsewhere or in different contexts (e.g. studying educational psychology, computer science,  browsing the Internet and taking an interest, etc.). An internship can take this knowledge and the candidate’s “raw talent” and shape it (by training them how to apply these skills, or providing some new skills) into a form that is useful for business/productivity. This benefits the intern, as their new skills are now marketable. It benefits the business (and business in general), as it means that candidates are better skilled to enter the workforce and become more productive in a shorter timeframe.

The US Dept of Labor asserts that an internship must meet 6 criteria (these 6 criteria separate an “unpaid internship” from “unpaid work”):


  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship

US Dept of Labor Fact Sheet #71 http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.pdf

How Does This Apply to Jobbridge?

What Jobbridge offers – despite calling them internships – is “experience”.  This is intended to ” the cycle where jobseekers are unable to get a job without experience, either as new entrants to the labour market after education or training or as unemployed workers wishing to learn new skills.” As long as this remains the case, Jobbridge is wide open to exploitation by unscrupulous business practices. It is easy to offer anyone “experience”, as all you need to do is tell them to do something. And that something may well profit you.

It is also easy to make exploiters out of those who may have good intentions. In a range of comments and tweets, I’ve seen people defend Jobbridge listings, claiming that “it’s a legitimate opportunity”. This may well be a firmly held belief – not everyone is a scheister. I can understand that some without an understanding of professional development or training may well feel that they are offering people a real chance to apply their knowledge/practice skills. This is not to say that all employers are struck by such a feeling of benevolence. It is simply to point out that many may not see the problem that others see. Which is what I want to talk about next.

What is the Problem?

The immediate and obvious problem is everything written thus far in the post – the possibility of exploitation (and the assertions that this exploitation is not only ocurring, but is rampant). A less obvious, but perhaps more damaging problem is that there is no proof of learning here. Without such proof of learning, the whole exercise is empty and pointless.

Empty and pointless because:

  • Businesses/organisations cannot describe what it is that they will teach interns (which leads to suspicion of their motives)
  • Interns have no objective evidence that they have done anything at all (which doesn’t help them when searching for actual, paid work)
  • Not necessarily essential – but Ireland is also missing the opportunity to draw up and develop a real skills register – i.e. a list of the skills used in businesses and organisations across the country
It is probably useful at this point to restate Jobbridge’s “aim”.
The aim of the National Internship Scheme is to assist in breaking the cycle where jobseekers are unable to get a job without experience, either as new entrants to the labour market after education or training or as unemployed workers wishing to learn new skills. The scheme will also give people a real opportunity to gain valuable experience to bridge the gap between study and the beginning of their working lives.
There is just about nothing here that describes education or training. (Another irony here is that Jobbridge comes under the aegis of FAS (soon to be SOLAS), the national work skills training and development agency.  FAS is Irish for “grow”, but there is little proof here that any growth will occur, offering much less by way of solace for those who are out of work and seeking opportunities).
So, How Can We Fix It?
Simply put (and it is much easier said that done), a proper training and development framework needs to be applied to the Jobbridge programme. This would:
  • Define the prerequisite level of education and skills required to undertake the internship
  • Identify the training that will take place during the apprenticeship, and describe the manner in which this training is provided
  • (The hardest part) Plot the skills to be learned/developed/applied according to their complexity and level of expertise. While this is difficult, we do have a National Framework of Qualifications, which plots – in the abstract – just this kind of information. The NFQ is used to decide whether a course leads to a certificate, diploma, degree, masters degree, etc.
  • Describe how the intern’s learned skills can be tested and applied in future
  • Provide a form of accreditation and certification, which gives the intern objective proof of their efforts, and identifies both their skillset and mastery for potential employers
So, How in Hell Do We Do All This?
This is a blog post, not a white paper. But forms of such internships exist (Accountancy/Law have used some form of learning/workplace development for generations, with new graduates undertaking “office work” while studying for examinations – often sponsored by their employers). However, I can think of 3 methods that could at least be investigated:
The medical internship model, in which educated people (i.e. those with a degree in medicine) are trained to perform certain tasks and encouraged to develop their skill. The traditional method is Learn One, Do One, Train One – in which the trainee will see a task being done, then – under supervision – perform that task, then teach the task to another, or explain it back to their supervisor (it is often easiest to prove to yourself and others that you know how to do something when you explain it to someone else in a clear manner). Of course, there are other learning methods employed (and indeed, different medical disciplines have their own training methods).  However, I suppose my point here is that if we don’t want to reinvent the wheel, we could always look at a tried and tested method for learning and developing professional skills, which can eventually be accredited and certified.
Another model might be to take a breakdown of the skills that an intern will gain while working for the ‘host’ organisation. These skills could be plotted against existing courses and training efforts already certified by FAS. Final testing for accreditation/certification could be developed.  The benefit of this approach is that many of the courses exist, and therefore will have standard curricula, syllabi and testing methods. These would need to be  tweaked, to be applied to workplace learning.  This is something for some kind of national skills training and development agency.  Where ‘holes’ exist (i.e. no courses currently exist), courses could be developed to bridge the gap – which then means Ireland (and Ireland’s training and development organisations) can better respond to the needs of organisations in the “real” economy.
Finally, and perhaps most difficult, is to develop skills accreditation on the fly. This would be absolutely meaningless without reference to something like the NFQ – it would require the development of a framework within which working skills are described in terms of effort, mental dexterity, expertise and complexity. These separate aspects would then need to be configured in such a way as to provide an abstract, objective description of the types of skills one has learned – but within definable categories (these categories being along the lines of “IT”, “Hospitality”, “Design”, etc. and then “Novice”, “Intermediate”, “Expert”, etc.). This might be considered impossible by some, but many corporate employers have something like this in place – because it allows them to gauge their own talent pool. Such a system would have to work on a national level. Skills descriptions would have to be defined by organisations working with objective experts in the training and development field. The skills descriptions would then need to be plotted against something like the NFQ.
In all cases, there are 3 important aspects which are missing from most Jobbridge listings:
  • Employer effort (not just the effort of taking on staff – but the effort of contributing to a workplace learning and development programme)
  • Defined training paths, which prove that the internship is – in fact – an internship and not a free-labour scheme
  • Accreditaiton and certification, which benefit both candidates and organisations by defining a skills range and level and benchmarking it so that employers and employees have a common reference point when discussing ability

In a country where we consistently discuss the “Knowledge Economy”, some form of knowledge development scheme should not be beyond us. However, whether the appetite for the challenge and the effort is there is another question.

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