Category Archives: internships

Open letter to university careers advisors


Dear University Careers Advisor,

I’m not sure to whom I should write this letter, but perhaps you could pass it on to your colleagues if this is not your field.  I tried to contact directly, the heads of 3 university career services, in 3 different countries, posing the same questions, but received no response. I’m sure they are very busy. However, these questions continue to baffle me and have done for over 5 years now.

I am an international executive search professional and career transition coach. Through my profession I coach new graduates in the job search process and as a parent of 2 Gen Y kids I have a wide circle of friends with children of the same age, many seeking entry-level opportunities. So I come across on a daily basis, young adults who are simply overwhelmed by the process of getting a job. I just have to ask myself why that is. Then I thought I would ask you too – as presumably you must have the answers.

Gen Y have to be the most  technologically savvy  generation of all time,  multi-tasking is in their blood. So why are so many of them confused about what needs to be done? There is so much free information on the internet, yet many don’t use it. How much time do you spend with them introducing them to social media platforms explaining their value as a job search technique? Or are they simply ignoring you?

I have many other questions. Let’s start with basics. What percentage even use your services? I’m perplexed why so many of them simply don’t have the first clue. They don’t know what they’re good at and they don’t know how to find out. What sort of aptitude or personality tests are available to them via university careers offices?  Or is it that they just choose not to get involved and prefer this hit and miss process?

I’m also bemused why so many of their CV/resumes are so badly written.  It doesn’t matter where in the world they’ve been to college: US, Canada, UK, Europe.  Most are seriously suspect.

From my perspective, further education should be about two things : learning for its own sake and the acquisition of knowledge, but also to equip young people to be strong contributors to our economies and to make them self-supporting and sufficient. They are supposed to be our brightest and best. Do you think therefore, there is a place for job search techniques in our educational curricula, in the same way as we include Economic Theory, The complete works of Shakespeare or Engineering Applications of Artificial Intelligence?

So I continue to remain bewildered, as millions of young graduates year after year, flood our global workforce, seemingly poorly equipped to join international economies, or worse still expected to work as unpaid interns to gain even basic skills. I can’t help wondering if it isn’t time for educational systems to formally address this problem and ask what your plans are, if indeed you have any?

I look forward to your feedback.

Yours faithfully,

Dorothy Dalton

Will the university of life make a comeback?

Can careers be launched without a degree?

Graduates are flooding the market in ever-increasing numbers to very uncertain job prospects, many with significant debts to pay off for the privilege. Employers are sifting through thousands of applications from candidates with soft degrees covering courses as disparate as puppetry to the ubiquitous media studies qualification. Large numbers of graduates emerge from the process with seemingly limited life skills and even basic literacy and numeracy deficiencies. Companies complain about the difficulties of identifying talent and recruiters bemoan how woefully unprepared candidates from this age group are for the job search process.

Many parents are asking me the question is it really necessary today to go to university? Could their children launch a successful career without a college degree?

My answer is – that depends.


In general terms there is persuasive research that there is indeed a correlation between completed further education and anticipated future earnings. There are also specific careers where having a university education will certainly be mandatory, simply because of an absolute need to guarantee a high level knowledge base within a certain field. I’m thinking of the traditional “hard” courses: medicine, sciences, engineering or law. I would definitely not want to have an unqualified doctor perform surgery on me, or to cross a bridge not built by an engineer or have untrained chemists create drugs (although many do – but nothing legal). There has been a proliferation of soft courses during times of prosperity and certain vocational occupations where entry previously was via school-leaving qualifications and on the job training, now require a university degree. But will this change in harder economic times?

Strong educational achievements are generally perceived, not necessarily correctly, to be a formal indicator of a higher level of general intelligence, focus and diligence. Those of us that know students, understand well that university can be about none of the above for many. But whether universities produce candidates who are better equipped for the workplace or even life itself is one of fierce debate.

Not having these qualifications does not suggest a lack of these skills or potential abilities – just a lack of proof via an education system. We all know that many successful people whether in business or other sectors did not go to university. Richard Branson, Mary Kay Ash, Bill Gates, Stephen Spielberg to name but a few. We have also been served in restaurants by waiters/waitresses with a whole string of letters after their names.

Economic change

As we have switched to what Peter Drucker describes as a ” knowledge based economy” , there has been a cultural and status shift from working with a product (hands) to working with information (the head). I’m wondering if now, as employers struggle to identify and weed out suitable talent and graduates have difficulty entering the workplace at the right level, how that will change.

Delayed maturity?

Robin Marantz Henig in an article for the New York Times “What is it about 20-somethings?” suggests that this age group are delaying the growing up process. As with most age groups my thoughts are that they are simply responding to the cultural, economic and technological developments of their time. As many countries have increased the number of students that complete further education, creating certain expectations in the process, we have recently seen a reduction of entry-level jobs with the worst economic downturn for many years. Having grown up in a relatively prosperous period, raised by parents who are affluent enough to support their children financially, sometimes until their mid 20s, many are now more than a little lost when those job prospects don’t materialise. They are returning to the family nest as Boomerang Kids, as home in luxury chez mum and dad, is infinitely more appealing than a lower standard house share which is what they can afford – if they can afford anything at all.

The banking system obligingly indulged, or dare I say it, created, a pattern of instant gratification by giving young ( non-working) people extended credit lines. Remember those ads “consolidate all your debts… go on a dream holiday now” and whole businesses grew up around a new trend for taking a gap year or even years, with parents paying thousands for their offsprings to dig a well in Africa or pick grapes in Australia. Technology has made communication instant , so they are not used to waiting ..for anything much at all, which is a source of frustration.


As we move into a period of economic uncertainty where all the goal posts are being moved, workplace structures are changing and I actually suspect it won’t matter how certain skills are acquired. Further education programmes, particularly the softer arts courses, will surely be cut as countries try to address the issues of chronic national debt. One thing to focus on for sure is the acquisition of real marketable skills. This can be done equally well outside a formal education system, as well as within it. Distance and e learning are emerging forces for adding to a qualification portfolio. We are already seeing a gentle return to the creation of old school apprenticeships.

What individuals do with their different experiences is what counts and that is not related to their educational level. Many of us have interviewed enough unemployable, unintelligible masters graduates to know that to be the case. I wonder if for the first time in many years the university of life will make a comeback and lose the stigma that became attached to it.

What do you think?

The enslavement of Gen Y

Unpaid interns: A new form of slave labour
We are all very aware of different forms of exploitation in the corporate world. I’m not even talking about sweat shops  or fields in emerging markets , but something that exists  in businesses right in front of our eyes, on our high streets and in our business parks and industrial estates.  In some cases these organisations are well-known household names: we watch their programmes, read their newspapers and magazines,  wear their clothes, go to their galleries or shops and buy their products.

I’m talking about the explosion of unpaid interns
One of my most popular posts is  “Unpaid internships: Opportunity or Exploitation? ”   As a result of this article I receive mails regularly  from interns, graduates, unemployed young people as well as parents, all commenting or asking about this issue.  I have a strong  interest in this as subject my son is currently working as an unpaid intern,  so I am tapped into that generation on a  very personal level. It also means that many of  my friends are supporting their graduates in these ” opportunities” with subsequent personal sacrifice. They actually feel, (as I do!) that they are  contributing to the bottom line of sometimes large and profitable international companies. Professionally, I coach and mentor some entry level graduates and see and empathise with their dilemmas.

Not only are these young adults working for nothing , some are not even getting reimbursement of their travel expenses or a sandwich at lunchtime.  The only light at the end of their very dubious tunnel is the promise of a reference, rather than a permanent job opportunity.   In many cases there are no training  programmes or even supervisory arrangements in place.   One graduate I am in contact with is being supervised by another unpaid intern  who has only 6 weeks more work experience  than he does!  The phrase the blind leading the blind comes to mind. Overtime is frequently demanded and he is pressurised to meet tight deadlines for specific commercial projects by working from home. One intern was even asked to bring his own computer (desk top)  into the office. Another graduate is working in an organisation where over 75% of the staff are made up of unpaid interns. Many graduates are now moving from one unpaid internship to another.  Increasingly, this seems to me  simply a way of getting some of the brightest and best of our young talent to  contribute to these organisations for free !

Intern explosion
The word  “intern” has slipped into global biz speak to convey some sort of traineeship or learning situation, replacing the older word apprentice, which had become slightly outmoded until very recently, when it re-surfaced on a  popular TV show by the same name. As the  stories of these young people unfold,  I begin to question the morality of a situation which seems to me to be a flagrant abuse of the economic downturn for corporate gain.  There seems to be a regression to the same exploitive employment practises that existed throughout the centuries, which ironically generations of campaigners have actually fought to eradicate.  Currently it seems that unpaid internships are exploding without restriction.

The history of apprenticeships  comes from the earliest times. In Egypt and Babylon, training in craft skills was organized to maintain an adequate number of craftsmen  and as a way of passing on skills to the next generation   In Europe in the Middle Ages families signed apprenticeship agreements and  sometimes paid stipends for their offspring to learn a trade to protect their long term economic well being.  But this was at a time when most children did not have access to formal education, when the number of apprenticeships a ” master” could hire was controlled. There was also another darker aspect of  the apprenticeship  system  where  “indentured servants” were simply exploited to provide a free service to their masters. But even these poor souls received some sort of board and lodging.

Legal situation
I know from my network that the intern system is internationally used and abused and although the implementation seems to be fuzzy, the legal framework seems to be clear! In the US, the Department of Labor has applied certain stipulations. The basic principle behind legal unpaid internships is simple – they should be for the benefit of the intern and the work should not involve anything operationally vital or replace the job of a full time permanent employee. This could include any basic tasks that helps support a business,  including routine administration work.    Mark Cuban owner of the Dallas Mavericks makes a valid point when he wanted to hire unpaid interns  “ Thus we would have to create work that is useless to us if we choose not to pay them.   How silly is that?” . . . Indeed interns themselves want to do something useful. But it begs the point why couldn’t they be paid – something at least.

According to Annabel Kaye,  Managing Director, Irenicon Ltd ,  a firm specialising in employment law based in Croydon,  Surrey, said  ” in the UK,  anyone performing work (whether as an employee or a worker) is entitled to the National Minimum Wage (at an appropriate level) unless they fall within specific and limited exemptions.  

 These include:  1) On specific government training schemes, or  2) On European Social Funded or Government funded placements of less than six weeks or 3) Volunteers working for a charity, voluntary organisation (such as a local community organisation) associated fund raising body or statutory body or 4) Students on a course involving  work experience of not more than one year.

 Individuals on an ‘internship’ leading to paid employment are often entitled to minimum wage throughout their ‘internship’ and paid employment period.   ”

Penalties for employers
There is no  doubt that this system is being abused. So are there deterrents?  Annabel told me that they are indeed quite significant in the UK at least ” If an organisation has underpaid minimum wage then the penalties are quite high once the wheels are in motion , apart from having to pay the intern the appropriate wages (going back over 3 years to all underpaid employees) ”    plus additional penalty payments.

However, a complaint has to be made,  not necessarily by the employee.  The young people themselves, fear reprisals and will not step up.  Her concern is  that  any complaints  about abuse will reduce the number of internships available “  The exploiters of interns will  bring down an enforcement regime , that will ultimately reduce the number of ‘good’ places as well as ‘bad’.”

I am not taking a stance on unpaid internships per se. There are excellent reasons why internships when entered into in the spirit they are intended can bring positive results for both  business and intern alike. Companies can benefit from fresh new talent and test them without going through an  expensive hiring and perhaps firing process.  This is especially helpful with new technologies,   giving  organisations access to knowledge and skills that would cost signficantly more if they used a normal consulting company.  Interns gain insights into the workings of their chosen sector and get used to a work structure after several years as students.

It can be a win/win. But  if the fine line between use and abuse is crossed,   it is no different from some historic forms of exploitation and slave labour.

What do you think?

Note :  For UK interns only :   Annabel suggests that anyone who is being (or has been) under paid can call the Pay and Work Rights Helpline on Tel 0800 917 2368. They take complaints from workers, employers and third parties 

Anyone on job seekers allowance (JSA) can undertake voluntary work as long as this does not detract from their job search or availability for interviews. The Government have made specific provision for unpaid internships of up to 13 weeks,  which can run alongside claiming JSA. Reimbursement of limited expenses should not affect Job Seekers allowance but should be declared to the Job Centre Plus Office. 

You can download a booklet on this from :

Special thanks to Annabel Kaye, Managing Director,  Irenicon Ltd : Airport House, Purley Way, Croydon, Surrey, CR0 0XZ , Tel:  08452 303050

Can you risk not having a career strategy?

Why strategic personal branding  is vital to career management
At the end of last year ,  I wrote about my experience adapting to a dramatically changing culture  and new methodologies in my own field of executive search and career coaching.    Although the central  theme,   slightly egocentrically,  focused on my own challenges and  frustrations of dealing with the  concept of  high on-line visibility, now a.k.a.  Personal Branding,   there was actually a key, underlying core message . The need for strategic forward thinking and preparation.

What is clear now is that we all need to develop and maintain on an ongoing basis,  a personal brand and career strategy , regardless of our current age or place in our careers.    

The recent recession has highlighted  not just unemployment trends, but  shifts in workplace employment and recruitment practises.  Some companies have  been forced by economic circumstances to re – engineer their policies to reduce their salary bills and employment costs, just to stay afloat.   Other organisations have simply used the downturn as an opportunity to introduce workplace  flexibility to  instantly enhance  bottom line results . 

Job loss has slowed down going into 2010, but job creation still lags  behind.  Permanent positions in companies  have been reduced and are unlikely to return to previous levels.  Fringe activities such as outsourcing to low-cost employment areas  and the reduction of  a permanent workforce to what Business Week calls “Perma-temps”  is on the increase and now becoming mainstream . The growth in interim assignments at a senior level  is also rising, attracting not just the early retirees who wanted to do a “spot of  consulting “,   but senior professionals  with  no other source of income.  

 In 2009,  according to the UK Office for National Statistics  there was a 31.5% rise  in unemployment for people over 50 ,  so at this age , there is a one in six chance of being out of work,  compared to Gen X  where  the  unemployment rate increased by  21.6 % .   However, even  if you do have a job  David Autor of MIT , suggests that the chances of  older,  more highly educated professionals  being employed in  lower skill level positions has  also  increased.  At the  other end of the spectrum, Gen Y struggle to get even unpaid internships.  Their unemployment figures have hit 18%   with predictions  that they will not be fully integrated into the workforce until 2014 with all that implies.

This means that competition for permanent positions in strong, stable organisations will  continue to be fierce, long after the recession is officially over.  At all levels.  The need to raise our visibility and generate a personal brand as part of a  planned career strategy will be more important than ever.    

Be strategic
Brian Tracy  suggested ‘ Invest three percent of your income in yourself (self-development) in order to guarantee your future ”  The reality is that most people don’t do that in terms of their career.  They might take golf lessons or learn to paint,  but  the average person probably spends more time planning an annual vacation  and invests more money maintaining  their  cars, than  planning their careers.  So because they are unprepared,   any crisis ( redundancy, firing , lay-offs, promotion disappointments)   produces a flurry of activity,  not  specific or focused , but usually frantic  and urgent.  Deadlines  become short-term, limited to weeks or months, rather than anything longer term.  CVs are dispatched and uploaded, networks contacted, headhunters emailed  and sometimes  in extremis,  even career coaches sought out.  We would never think of taking off  on a  road  trip in  an  un-maintained car ( at least not once out of college),  yet we constantly look for jobs with un- maintained careers and wonder why there are difficulties!  

Avoid brand prostitution
 @TomYHowe:    suggested in response to my post “I think therefore I exist…Wrong , think again”   that on going brand management  could lead to   “Life as sales”     and he is indeed correct ,  if not  applied strategically.  There’s no reason why it should involve on- line soul selling and become brand prostitution. That would come dangerously close to some of the publicity stunts  I mentioned required to market celebrity scent.  

Return on Relationships
Nor does it necessarily mean as  @wpbierman:    amusingly quipped,  becoming ego related:   “I am being followed – therefore I am”.  Behind that funny one-liner there is for me  an excellent thought, that once again comes back to strategy. I am definitely in favour of return on relationships and for me the key message is what   Rory Murray   describes as  ” maximising your reputation in the marketplace through the effective use of your network of contacts for mutual benefit“.   

Measuring success only by the volume of connections/ followers/friends  can be misleading.  Lisa Brathwaite covers this concept beautifully in her post  suggesting that some  of the so-called on line experts can be some of the poorest users, simply because they do not engage.

But for job seekers and headhunters alike there  is a great deal of strength in a weak network.    It is the new, global Rolodex and  why I think it’s important to start developing that visibility and personal brand as wisely,  strategically and as early in your career as possible,  as the competition for permanent jobs hots up . 

Why? To stand out in a crowded market place 

  •  to make sure you appear in on-line searches run by people like me.   That’s how you get noticed
  • To build up a strong on-line presence and reputation. This is what differentiates and extends your reputation  and how you get those calls from people like me.
  • Build up  a strong  network as part of an ongoing career management  plan.

 That’s how you avoid crisis and improve your job search chances.

Thanks to WP Bierman,  Lisa Braithwaite,   Rory Murray    and Tom Howe


Job seekers: the new breed of entrepreneur?

I was chatting to a girlfriend  recently who wanted to talk about her career options. She didn’t know really what she wanted to do – but she did have strong ideas about what she didn’t want to do – “nothing entrepreneurial   ” she  told me emphatically.     The sub text was that  this was a bit risky, possibly   slightly pushy  ( all that  ghastly selling  ) and maybe even  vaguely tacky,  just  too reminiscent of Alan Sugar and the Apprentice for comfort.  She just wanted to find a normal job.

But what is a normal job and can it be found normally?

I think she’s due for a wake up call.

The internet has revolutionised our lives in so many ways especially the way and speed in which we do things and exchange information. The recruitment process, as with many other sectors has been dramatically impacted and is constantly evolving in response to technological advancement.  These developments have coincided with a  dramatic worldwide recession and a huge decrease in the number of jobs available. Job loss outstripped job creation 3:1 in the first quarter of 2009 in Europe.  Globally unemployment figures are now tipping over the 9% mark, so that  in some countries and sectors almost 1 in 10 people are now unemployed. The number of jobs posted on line in the US dropped by 13%, 2008 on 2009, where there are now 3.3 candidates for every position.

The goal posts are moving
HR Managers claim that thousands of applicants per vacancy is commonplace. 80% of recruiters use on-line media and search engines to identify and source candidates for the hidden job market and only 20% of jobs are advertised in a traditional way.   Entry level candidates compete even for unpaidemployment .   

“For every 1,470 resumes, there ’s 1 job offer made and accepted” – Richard Bolles, bestselling author, What Color is Your Parachute?

Phrases such as  personal branding,  career management,   raised visibility and google ranking  have slipped imperceptibly into the career coaching lexicon.  The goal posts are moving faster than you can say Beckham or Ronaldo. Today’s “normal ” may have reached its  shelf life before the Q4 results are released.

The days when we could join a company and stay with it ” man and boy”   ( or to be politically inclusive “woman and girl”)  as the saying goes,  are  long gone.  As are the days of guaranteed employment until retirement in any job. Will retirement  even exist as a concept  for future generations? The truth is we don’t  know.  What we do know is that there are no guarantees. 

We are also learning that we have to do things differently and if we don’t we’ll get left behind.

Doing things differently
So as I coach people in  enhancing their competitive edge by recognising their added value and looking for metrics to demonstrate that, identifying their USPs,  creating a personal brand, increasing their visibility via different media to just the optimum level   (not over doing it to become a nuisance factor), protecting their on-line image , topped off by the perfectly pitched elevator sound bite,  for casual  and appropriate introduction  on all occasions and functions,  it strikes me that this is actually probably no different to a company running its operations and  launching a product on the market.   

Does this mean that we all now have to become mini entrepreneurs in our job ( opportunity)  seeking efforts and that managing a career is now like managing a business ? 

Both require  creative thinking,  identifying  target markets,  an effective product launch, closing the deal , client relationship management,  long term planning and maintenance, underpinned by sound  on – going investment. 

So yes …I guess it does.

Unpaid Internships: Opportunity or Exploitation?

Job opportunities for the class of 2009 have dipped even lower than the last major drop of the early ’80s. Career prospects are looking bleak for entry level candidates. Many graduates are now scrambling around trying to figure out what they can do to create some sort of future for themselves, while at the same time coping with blows to their confidence, financial security and independence. Many are applying to take Masters Courses to try and gain further qualifications in the hope of achieving a more competitive edge in 2010. Others are taking non graduate or temporary jobs.

A final group are looking at internships to try and build up some work experience.  However, many are finding some employers are expecting these young people to work without pay. That’s right for nothing. I have mixed thoughts about this. On the one hand I can see how any opportunity is better than none. It is also a difficult time when highly experienced older people are being laid off, or being asked to reduce their hours and salaries or to take unpaid extended holidays. The skill sets of these young people are currently not great – but they do represent future investment, not just for companies, but for whole economies.

Who can benefit?
What bothers me is who is actually able to take advantage of these unpaid intern schemes? It seems that only graduates in financially advantageous situations can profit from this development, where they are able to support themselves for 6 months with no income at all. With student debt  rising ( in the UK the average is reported to be £15,700, but according to the National Union of Students goes up to as much as £26k) already loans are going to take up to 12 years to pay back. Alternatively, more affluent parents are stepping in to financially support their graduate offspring in their efforts to gain any type of work experience. Other families are reaching deep into their pockets to pull out money they can’t really afford, thus jeopardising their own financial futures.

Free labour?
I recently coached a young adult, the son of a service employee, a talented quadri- lingual business graduate, who interviewed in a London based, international holding company for an intern position.  The young man’s salary demand was a subsistence allowance, which would barely cover his living costs. However, the employer made it clear that the expectation was that the position would be unpaid. The graduate clearly tried to negotiate some sort of basic compensation, but was unwilling to risk bad relations and any future employment opportunities by pushing too hard. But he simply couldn’t afford to take the job.

I would have thought, and hoped, that showing you can negotiate for yourself, is an indication that you can indeed negotiate for the company.  Unwilling to get deeper into debt and his family unable to help to support a period in a high cost city like London, he was obliged to walk away. I researched the company and I promise you, they are far from being in the red.

How far do they self advoate?
The dilemma that these kids experience is how hard do they self advocate? How far do they go and how much debt do they get into, just to have something on their CV?  Having run graduate recruitment and entry level schemes in my career, I know that this level require training and supervision to be fully and correctly utilised  to gain any valid experience. Without that, unless they are very lucky, they will end up doing routine,  low level clerical jobs.

Corporate gain
To me that is pure exploitation of the market for corporate gain.  There have always been certain sectors where interns are expected to work just to have the experience: fashion and film are just two that spring to mind. But there was usually some sort of opportunity in the distance. With full economic recovery projected as being in 2014, how long will the class of 2009 have to wait?

It also means that  less well off graduates, despite having equal qualifications will  struggle to compete with graduates from more affluent families.