Graduate Development

There are so many unemployed young graduates out there competing for a small number of jobs. What makes the difference is work experience … those with some kind of work experience or work related experience are more employable than those that don’t. An internship is a ‘work placement’ or ‘work experience programme’ offered by a company to a student for a fixed period of time, usually between one week and one year in duration. Sometimes an internship is referred to as a graduate development programme although strictly speaking an internship is done in order to satisfy requirements for a qualification. An is designed to provide a wide variety of experiences so that the intern gains an understanding of the work environment and the professional responsibilities involved in the job.

‘A foot in the door’

An internship is a great way for students to get a ‘foot in the door’ of the job market and to gain some work experience. Internships serve as a ‘stepping-stone’ to promotion or permanent placement. As an intern you get to prove yourself while working on-the-job. As an intern you get to try out the company to see how you fit in; the company gets to try you out to see how you perform. If you feel that you do not fit the culture then move on to another job. At least you will have gained some experience.

What do interns do?

As an intern you get to apply your knowledge gained from the classroom to the real world. But be warned, you will start off doing all of the repetitive and boring tasks that no one else in the organization wants to do. For example, lets say you get a position as a marketing intern. In your first few months you will get to do a lot of the admin support stuff, helping the marketing team with data capture, preparing marketing materials, drafting letters writing correspondence for promotions, etc. As an accounting intern, your tasks will also be repetitive. For example you may do the data capture of client’s income and payments for tax returns; you may have to queue in the line at revenue services, or you may need to reconcile tax returns.

As your knowledge and experience grows you will work less under supervision and you will be given more responsibility. You will be given opportunity to work under experienced employees; you will be trained and mentored and given projects to manage on your own under supervision. The experience you gain may be as valuable as anything you learn in your studies. After all, you cannot really understand what a job is all about until you have worked in that environment.

Advantages of an internship:

It’s not unusual for employers to make a full-time job offer to the interns who prove themselves. Many employers use internships as a trial period and will already have plans to recruit on a permanent basis. Other advantages:

  • You get to work within a specific industry related to your qualification.
  • You will have a competitive advantage over your peers in finding work because you have work experience.
  • You have a unique opportunity to find out about what kind of work you would really like to do.
  • Your career aspirations may change when you’re faced with the true realities of a role.
  • You will gain a real insight into the world of work, allowing you to build on the theory you learned while studying.
  • You will develop a variety of soft skills, including skills in communication, presentation skills, creative problem solving and influencing skills.
  • You will have access to experienced people in roles you aspire to.
  • You will be able to list your internship experience on your CV with references which will make you more marketable when applying for other job.

How long do internships last?  

An internship can vary anything from a week or two in the holidays to one year.  Internships for full time undergraduates will be shorter than graduate internships. Some internships are compulsory and accredited by a professional body. For example, to qualify as a medical doctor you will need to complete a student internship. Experience gained on an accountancy internship may count towards your experience requirement when applying to become a qualified accountant. Prospective architects must obtain one to two years of experience under the guidance of a registered architect before they can register as an architect. Internships offer a way of connecting to with companies who provide this experience.

Paid or Voluntary

An internship may be paid, unpaid, or subsidized in the form of a stipend.

If you are a “voluntary worker” for a charity, voluntary organisation or fund raising body, then you may work without payment for a good cause. Also, if you are a student doing a job shadow or work experience programme for a few weeks, an employer does not have to pay you.

However, if you are working as an intern for a period of months and you are doing ‘actual work’ for a business you should be paid or you should be receiving a least a stipend. A stipend is a fixed amount of money that is paid out on a regular basis to cover your basic costs of transport and living expenses. Paid internships are common for internships lasting three (3) months or more for students who are graduates in fields such as finance, law, and engineering.

There is a fine line between working to get a foot in the door and working for free. Remember, an internship can be expensive and time consuming to run. On the other hand don’t become over exploited  to get a foot on the job ladder. The test of whether you should be paid is if you are doing ‘actual work’ and if this work is providing value to the employer. If you are then you should be paid a minimum wage or at least a stipend.

When doing an internships weigh up the short term benefits of payment with the long term benefits getting a foot in the door. As an intern you have the opportunity to market yourself to other organisations and to apply for positions that will arise after you have completed your internship period.

What is the difference between an internship and an apprenticeship?

An apprenticeship and an internship both involve on-the-job training, however an internship is usually associated with white collar administrative, management, professional and office type work, whereas an apprenticeship is associated with blue collar type work in a trade such as boilermaker, tool-and dye maker, electrician and plumber. A trade is more structured than an internship and government regulated whereas an internship may not be regulated and structured within a legal framework.


Internships are usually run at a specific branch or office in a specific location. Check the location of the internship first to make sure you can pay for the the accommodation and transport. It does not help to take an internship in a location situated too far from where you have a place you stay, or where there may be no transport services available.

Have the right attitude

Make the most of your internship be willing and open to new ideas. Take on new tasks no matter how small. If you do well in the small things you can be trusted with the big tasks. Ask for feedback from your manager as to how you are doing? Don’t feel intimidated, ask your manager how you’re doing. Are you meeting the goals of the organization? Once you have that feedback, use it for your development.


“Its not what you know its who you know”. Use this experience as a networking opportunity to build relationships with people at all levels. Whenever it’s possible, get away from your desk and meet other people in your organisation. Continue the relationships you’ve built after the internship ends.

Organisations such as South African Graduates Development Association (SAGDA) are directly involved in the placement of graduates through internship and graduate programmes.  SAGDA partners with private and public Universities, TVET colleges, SETAS, municipalities and companies to champion the empowerment of graduates through high impact programmes. Get in touch with them, register with them to keep up to date,