Author: Aggett, Mandy
Date published: April 1, 2011
Unemployment is a lagging indicator of recession and challenges new graduates to be even more competitive when trying to secure their first real job. In this environment, it might be expected that students would take the opportunity to enhance competitive advantage, via a long internship. However, as the School of Tourism and Hospitality at the University of Plymouth has discovered, this was not the case. This paper addresses the concept and purpose of the internship and then examines reasons cited by students for not considering a placement commencing in 2010.
Undertaking a period of employment, paid or otherwise, has traditionally been known as a sandwich placement in Britain (Busby 2003, 2005; Busby, Brunt, & Baber, 1997; Leslie & Richardson, 2000) and sometimes as work experience, practicum or cooperative education (Inui, Wheeler & Lankford, 2006; Waryszak, 1997). However, increasingly the term internship appears to be used to denote the experience.
On those programmes where an internship occurs, there is clearly a link with industry (Airey & Johnson 1999; Busby & Gibson 2010; Cooper & Westlake 1998; Evans 2001; Tribe 1997). Indeed, internships could be argued to be the single most important link with industry, and they are an activity emphasised by Dearing (1997), Harvey, Moon, and Geall (1997) and Harvey, Locke, and Morey (2002) in their extensive reviews. In their application of Silver and Brennan's (1988) degree typology to tourism qualifications, Busby and Fiedel (2001) emphasised that most provision fits Type G: curricula are designed in relation to perceived employment needs and, whilst graduates enter an open employment market, such degrees aim to assist students to compete in that market, frequently via the learning and skills acquired via internship. As Busby (2001, p. 35) explained, the internship plus degree equates to the "necessary base" for employment.
Furthermore, Walmsley, Thomas and Jameson (2006) identified that "graduate awareness of employment opportunities in SMEs is poor [and that] a prominent reason for this is that career advice agencies do not have the same level of information about careers in SMEs as they do about larger organisations . . . one way of increasing awareness of SME employment opportunities is by providing students with work experience in small and medium-sized firms" (p. 361). However, as evidenced in the decline in the number of students choosing to undertake an internship, it appears that many students fail to appreciate the value of such experience. This necessitates an examination into why this is the case, but first the value of internships requires further discussion.
An extensive study of 112 tourism degree programmes at 66 HEIs of the UK, undertaken by Busby and Fiedel (2001), revealed that 23% offer a one year internship while others' range from 1 to 7 months. In some cases, overseas internships were compulsory, "usually those courses that have a particularly international focus and/or require the student to apply a language" (p. 517). The development of a range of transferable skills, from teamwork to presentations and IT ability, also received wide attention in these programmes. Clearly, a university can enhance the graduate's chance of finding and succeeding in employment when it offers more than the development of disciplinary knowledge: learner autonomy, skills and experience (Busby & Gibson 2010; Walker, 1994).
Inui et al. (2006) asserted that "students have the expectation of high employability because of the vocational emphasis in tourism programmes" (p. 26). For a number of graduates, these expectations are met with the option of returning to the internship provider, as documented by Busby (2003), Busby and Gibson (2010), and Gibson and Busby (2009). Not only does an internship increase the ability of students to critically reflect on the tourism business (Tribe, 2001), it also provides the opportunity to observe others in a workplace setting and has been argued to enhance common sense (Gerber, 2001).
Research conducted by Little and Harvey (2006) identified students' reasons for taking on a placement. Based on interviews with 82 students from several HEIs, key responses were: to gain an insight into a particular industry or type of work; to see how theory was applicable in the workplace; to supplement learning with practical experience; and the belief that placement experience is more "saleable" in the graduate job market than other types of work experience. According to Bullock, Gould and Hejmadi (2009), students do benefit from time spent on an internship, noting that placements "have enhanced their understanding of their own life choices, enabled the acquisition of transferable skills and provided a tangible link between theory and application" (p. 482).
Ball, Collier, Mok, and Wilson (2006, p. 36-37) summarised the benefits of work placements identified by Harvey et al. (1998) as:
* working in a setting in which to put theory into practice
* developing an awareness of workplace culture
* an appreciation of the fluidity of a rapidly changing world of work
* an opportunity to develop a range of personal attributes (e.g., time management, self confidence and adaptability)
* the development of key interactive attributes (e.g., team-working, interpersonal and communication skills)
* short-term financial benefits - some students are earning whilst studying, thus helping to reduce student hardship
* enhanced employment prospects and the potential of commanding higher wages when starting employment after graduation
* assistance in developing career strategies, such as help with career choice, becoming aware of opportunities and building up a network of contacts
* (in some cases) living and working in another culture, learning other languages and contributing to the global community
Despite the benefits, the number of students at HEIs in the UK that are opting to undertake a work placement is in decline (Bullock et al., 2009; Little & Harvey, 2006; Morgan, 2006; Walker & Ferguson, 2009). This comes at a time when "the links between higher education and industry are considered fundamental in boosting the economy and enhancing the quality of the workforce" (Bullock et al., 2009, p. 481). So why is this the case?
Opting out of placement
A number of previous studies have been carried out to determine students' reasons for opting out of a placement. Walker and Ferguson's study (2009, p. 4) of students within the Faculty of Management at the University of Central Lancashire, identified the most commonly cited reasons as: "I couldn't find the right role (26%), 3 years at Uni is long enough (17%), already had work experience (15%), and didn't want a break from academia (6%)". Bullock et al. (2009) found that 80% of bioscience and engineering students at a university in the south west of England did not want to break from their studies, while 50% believed they already had enough experience. Morgan's (2006) work, based on a series of interviews with key staff and selected students at the University of Salford, concluded that while students recognised the value of work experience, there were a number of factors that influence their decision whether or not to undertake it. These included concerns relating to financial and personal costs, the level of support from the university, finding the right employer, uncertainty over career aspirations and high employer entry requirements.
A study published by the London Metropolitan University in 2004 (discussed in Ball et al., 2006) reported that, while many respondents were willing to pursue a placement, they alluded to a number of difficulties and barriers. These include the burden of finding a placement themselves, difficulties in "cold-calling" employers (a lack of response or rejection dampened their resolve), a lack of awareness, unenthusiastic departmental tutors and selfreported idealistic expectations.
Rationale for investigation and data collection method
The School of Tourism and Hospitality, offers a one year optional internship to students. A number of opportunities are secured each year and advertised to students on a placement database, though students are also encouraged to seek their own internships. A series of preparation sessions is offered to students on BSc Tourism, Hospitality and Events programmes. Although this preparation is not assessed, it is vital for students that wish to undertake a placement as it provides them with knowledge of the requirements of the internship year and develops their potential in securing a placement.
The trigger for reviewing why internships were not being sought, or not sought with determination, was non-attendance at one of these preparation sessions (interview training). All Year 2 tourism, hospitality and events students were contacted by e-mail, and approximately one-third of respondents explained they had failed to attend this training session because they had decided not to embark on an internship. It was found that a number of other development opportunities had also been ignored or poorly attended. On further examination, it became apparent that the number of students of the School who had undertaken an internship had progressively decreased since 2007 (Table 1).
Even when the figures were at a peak, in 2007/2008, it is still somewhat surprising that they were so low considering the undeniable benefits of a year's experience in industry. What is more remarkable is the sharp fall in uptake of internships since this period. It should be noted however, that the school saw a dramatic increase in the total number of eligible students during this time, with the introduction of a BSc in Events Management in 2006. In the meantime, the number of placement opportunities available fell due to the economic downturn. Nevertheless, the decline in those opting to take a placement year was a concern and students' reasons for this required investigation.
Having secured explanations for non-attendance at the interview training session, students were contacted again via email. Those students who had decided not to undertake an internship were asked to state their reasons. Thirty-three students responded and the results are summarised as follows:
* industry experience already acquired
* applications made without success
* aim to complete the degree sooner
* disinterest in the advertised placements
* no longer want to work in the industry
* do not wish to break momentum/routine
* concern that current employment or accommodation will be lost
* lack of support
* doubt that a placement is obtainable; a paid placement could not be found
* a contact has already been made in the industry
It is understandable that those with industry experience should choose to opt out of the placement year. Some of them had worked in relevant positions for several years and would therefore have already benefited from their experience. However, other responses suggest that respondents:
a) did not understand the value and importance of gaining experience in the industry (those who aimed to complete degree in three years; did not wish to break momentum or lose current employment; had already committed to accommodation for next year; the student who stated they had a contact in the industry), or;
b) lacked the drive and determination of those who had secured a placement (those who had given up their search after making one or more applications without success; no longer wished to work in the industry; stated they were not interested in the advertised placements, there had been a lack of support, they could not find a paid placement or were doubtful they could get a placement).
The responses suggested that more needed to be done to emphasise the value of the internship opportunity, and to encourage students to make a more determined and steadfast approach to their career development.
The way ahead
Interpretation of the results has revealed a number of support mechanisms required to increase student participation in the internship year and their engagement in the career development opportunities afforded to them. The following proposals are based on observations made on current provision and the available literature, in relation to the responses derived by this study. These proposals for the School could be considered by other HEIs wishing to enhance practice.
The value of the internship year should be emphasised much earlier, in year one. One student of the London Metropolitan University study believed it would help if lecturers and tutors were "mentioning it all the time from the start of the degree" (Ball et al., 2006, p. 41). Whilst the internship was referred to and discussed within some programmes during Year One, this was not the norm for others. Earlier consideration of the internship year should accentuate its importance.
The work placement preparation workshops should be timetabled at more opportune times, or fully integrated into an assessed module. Many students referred to their workload or other appointments when explaining non-attendance at the interview training session:
I didn't see it as worthwhile because of how much work I have at the moment.
I did not attend the lecture because we have a lot of coursework on, and basically it's a really bad time for lectures such as these. In my opinion they should have all been at the start of the year when we had sufficient time and less pressure.
I apologise, the session slipped my mind. I think I speak for quite a few students as this is a major fortnight of assignment deadlines.
Students should be sent a reminder via email a week or more in advance of a workshop. Currently, a reminder is sent to them only 2 days in advance which may be missed if they do not check their emails regularly. They are nevertheless, relied on to check their timetables but this does not appear to take place.
It completely slipped my mind. I don't have any lectures on Tuesdays and so I didn't check my timetable.
I have been so busy with uni[versity] work, I have simply neglected to check when these sessions are going on. I have had so much to think about, it has simply slipped my mind.
I'm sorry I was not at the session, I must have forgotten.
More guidance should be provided to students on picking themselves up after unsuccessful interviews, and taking a more determined approach to finding a placement. The London Metropolitan study found that students expressed a need to develop "persuasive powers to boost their confidence, especially for the 'cold-calling' that has to be done to find placements" (Ball et al., 2006, p. 42). Currently, some students are giving up their search after experiencing rejection or a lack of response:
I am not doing a placement now as I have recently heard back from various businesses that I was interested in and they have no positions available.
The only opportunity I really wanted to do was the cruise placement but this did not go successful and I do not know what other direction to go into so I decided I do not want to do one.
The companies that could take on a placement student were only interested in supporting the colleges and universities in their local area and not from the other side of the country.
Heightened awareness of the total number of students across the UK that are chasing the same positions and provision of further evidence of the benefits of the placement year might stimulate a more protracted and competitive approach.
The learning that takes place during an internship, and the project work that is required of them as a result, should be underlined at the start of second year, rather than near the end when they are issued with the placement handbook and assessment brief. This would enhance their understanding of the skills, knowledge and experience that an internship would provide, and might also allay students' concerns that a year out of university would lead to a loss of momentum.
I feel I have only just got myself into a routine of studying and believe that if I do go I will find it hard to get back into this routine.
If I go on a year out/placement year I will find it hard to feel inclined to come back into a studying environment.
Bullock et al. (2009) described this as a choice for pre-placement students between "stimulating change and comfortable familiarity" (p. 491).
One respondent suggested that students require more support in finding a placement:
The whole placement system has been quite unhelpful, it's put a sizeable dampener on my initially ambitio[us] intentions to do a placement abroad and to be honest I have felt that we have been left to our own devices and a lot of people have given up on the idea purely because it feels like there is little actual or active support and help for finding a placement.
This statement contradicts students' efforts in attending all workshops and other opportunities that have been planned for them. However, it also demonstrates a lack of awareness of the support that is available, suggesting this student was not present at the initial work placement preparation workshops where this support was outlined. A document could be issued to all students at the beginning of the second year providing full details of the support mechanisms in place, available whenever required. This document should also highlight that although the placement team secures and advertises a number of internship opportunities each year, students are encouraged to find their own placements, as is typical in other universities. This would then discourage inertia and deter students from limiting their search to the placements advertised by the university.
The placements available are not suitable in areas I want to further my career in.
You did not provide anything I was interested in.
I believe that many Events students have now given up looking for placements due to the lack of relevant postings on the portal and from other sources.
The importance of starting the placement search early must be more clearly communicated. Walker and Ferguson's (2009) study concluded that students on their placement year and those in their final year considered that "early application for placements would have provided them with a wider variety of choices and, therefore, assisted them in finding the right role" (p. 7).
Although students are encouraged to find their own internships, additional support is necessary to seek and secure further placement opportunities due to the decline in the number of employers willing to take on a student in the current economic climate. Currently, the School has a very small placement team and their workload limits the time they have to meet with employers. This is in the process of being reviewed but should result in a new member of staff being appointed who is dedicated to employer engagement. The Academic Placement Coordinator is also planning on re-introducing a subject specific careers fair, which was popular in previous years but did not run in 2010 due to time and resource limitations.
The results of this study support earlier research into students' reasons for opting out of a placement (Bullock et al., 2009; Walker & Ferguson, 2009). To members of academic staff who have witnessed previous economic recessions, it seems incredible that undergraduates despair after such little effort at acquiring an internship; the evidence supporting the importance of the year out is so compelling.
Responses indicate there are two key obstacles that must be overcome: a lack of understanding of the value of work experience, and a lack of drive and determination. Therefore, proposals have been made for initiatives that emphasise the value of the internship opportunity, and encourage the students to make a more determined and steadfast approach to their career development. It is hoped that this will result in increased numbers of students opting to undertake a work placement in future years.
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Submitted May 2010. Final Version September 2010. Accepted October 2010.
Mandy Aggett (email@example.com) and Graham Busby (firstname.lastname@example.org)
School of Tourism and Hospitality, Plymouth Business School, University of Plymouth, Drake Circus,
Plymouth PL4 8AA, England
©Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education
Mandy Aggett is a Lecturer in Hospitality Management and the Academic Placements Co-ordinator for Tourism, Hospitality and Events at the University of Plymouth.
Dr Graham Busby is Programme Manager for the BSc Tourism awards at the University of Plymouth where he has been for the last sixteen years. Besides a keen interest in educational aspects of both undergraduate and postgraduate tourism qualifications, he has published on various aspects of heritage and cultural tourism.