Adam Donnan; Robert Carthy
November 2011

Graduate Employment and Internships: issues from the environmental sciences and sustainability sectors

The Institution of Environmental Sciences (IES) recognises there are clear problems related to graduate employment in the environmental sciences and sustainability sectors. Exacerbated by the economic downturn, this report highlights more deep-seated problems in Higher Education, the graduate job market and the pathways from a degree into employment.

The Issue
Recently, a significant number of graduates have contacted the IES for advice after many unsuccessful applications for jobs within the sector. This is in line with comments by employers that suggest recent graduates do not have adequate work-based skills, and are unlikely to get a job without work experience.

Graduate employment can be described as a ‘wicked’ or unbounded problem due to its complexity, ambiguity, tension and risk. The research here aims to identify, quantify and understand these issues, with particular focus on internships, the ethical issues surrounding them and the expectations that graduates and employers place on their value and role within the graduate employment market.

This research was based upon a series of surveys aimed at both graduates from environmental related degrees and employers in the environmental industry.
424 graduates responded to two online questionnaires which gathered information on:
1. the current employment status of environmental science graduates; and
2. graduates’ experiences of internships.

Additionally 14 case studies were submitted describing in greater detail graduates’ experiences of internships.

30 employers were surveyed in the form of a telephone questionnaire that aimed to:
1. gather their views on graduate employees; and
2. identify the value they placed on internships and the format they should take.

Graduate Employment in the Sector
 23% of graduates said they were unemployed, which is greater than the national average for 16-24 year olds (20%). Of the graduates in employment, 44% were not working in the environment sector, 76% of who said this was because they could not find a job there. Nevertheless, 80% were either actively seeking or aiming in the long term to find employment in the environment sector.

Key Finding: It is not a lack of interest, but a lack of available positions, that forces people out of the sector.

Graduate Skills
13 of the 30 employers interviewed agreed that ‘graduates had the skill set required for entry-level jobs’. However, there was little consensus amongst employers regarding graduates, their skills, workplace value and any responsibility employers bear to train them.

Key Finding: Few employers think that graduates do not have the skills required for entry-level jobs. Of those that do, it is because graduates have: poor communication skills, poor technical ability, and trouble working independently.

Opinions on Internships
Graduates clearly identified internships as a ‘learning experience’ and ‘foot in the door’. Amongst employers there was little consensus surrounding the definition of internships. However, they thought there was a role for internships in the labour market although many expressed concern about the ethics of unpaid work.

Key Finding: Most graduates and employers agree that internships provide a valuable learning experience. Disagreement surrounded the issue of whether internships should be paid or not.

Motivations and Benefits
Graduates sought internships mainly to apply their knowledge in a practical way. However, half of graduates said it was because they could not find a full-time position. 50% of graduates were seeking internships to secure full-time employment. However, of those graduates who were doing an internship at the time, only 23% said that it would secure full-time employment.

Internships provided employers with short-term, inexpensive help for specific tasks or during busy periods, and allowed them to ‘try out’ potential employees on a flexible basis.

Experiences of Internships and Placements
Key Finding: There are differences between what graduates seek and what they gain from internships. Employers benefit from internships' flexibility and casual nature.

Paid or Unpaid?, Constraints
65% of graduates said that their internships were unpaid, while 17% provided no reimbursements (travel/food expenses). 53% of graduates said they had not done internships because it would not be financially viable, 38% because they were unable to find one. Many graduates attributed this to internships being mostly situated in and around London, which was too expensive or far away from their homes.

Only nine of the 30 surveyed employers provided internships, of which only three were paid. Of the remaining 21, employers did not provide internships due to either/or; a lack of staff time for training, no need, training requirements would make short placements unfeasible.

Key Finding: Most internships are unpaid and difficult to obtain, especially outside of London. This is considered unfair by most graduates. Few employers provide internships, mainly due to issues surrounding training.

Of graduates currently undertaking internships, 49% said it was for six months or longer. 48% of graduates believed that internships should be up to three months long. Employers' responses ranged from six weeks to approximately one to three years.

Key Finding: There is no defined length of internships. Graduates believe that internships should be shorter than employers believe or provide.

Employers acknowledged that the employment market has been difficult. There are many highly qualified graduates but it is often easier to train existing staff. Furthermore, employers advised graduates to steer clear of recruitment agencies as they often did not use them.

Key Finding: The graduate market is congested, but it is better for graduates to apply directly to firms rather than using recruitment consultancies.

Are they worth doing?
Most graduates who had completed or were currently doing internships said that they were a valuable experience. Of the 129 graduates who were now working in the environmental industry, 49 had worked as an intern, of which 46 said that the internship had helped them secure their current job. However 80 graduates who were now working in the environmental industry did not work as an intern post-graduation.

Key Finding: Internships provide a valuable route into the environmental industry. However they are not the only path into the field, and may be inaccessible for many individuals.

Fundamentally, this research has identified that there is little consensus amongst both graduates and employers regarding the purpose, worth and format that an internship should take. Nevertheless, they clearly provide a valuable route into the environmental industry.

The report concludes with guidelines from the IES on internships, divided into learning, accessibility and treat of interns. These are intended to protect both employers and interns.