Students on IBM's Extreme Blue internship.

Gap years - worth it or a waste of time?

If you go by what employers say, it's totally worth it! Big tech companies consider those with gap years and internships under their belt as being more employable. And with a growing range of work placement schemes, from 12 weeks to 12 months in length, there's something for everyone.

In the late 1990s and most of the noughties it seemed that the fad for taking gap years was on the wane – with many students preferring to complete their degree courses uninterrupted before attempting to find employment. Over the last three years however, with a depleted job market saturated with inexperienced graduates, the trend has bucked – and seen a completely new mindset from students, universities and key industry players.

While working holidays and voluntary work have always been considered a worthwhile undertaking, the emphasis had always been on ‘holiday’. Nowadays however, the key word is ‘employability’.

Voluntary work abroad is one of the first things people think of when pondering a gap year. Many gap year projects involve engineering-related work, such as building roads or installing water systems but most tend to be directed towards general volunteers – which, while invaluable from a learning language and general experience point of view, are not so hot if you’re looking to hone your skills.

Increasingly, however, there are now more opportunities for paid work- placements and skill-developing internships – some of which involve travelling abroad.

Year in Industry

The Year in Industry (YINI), for example, finds top class paid placements for students interested in all areas of engineering, science, IT, e-commerce, business etc. in their gap year before or during their degree course – within key UK companies including Shell and Rolls Royce. Further incentive is that students can compete for the top prize in YINI’s prestigious Contribution to Industry Award – where students manage a project designed to make a significant difference to the company with whom they are placed. YINI also runs ‘combos’ where students complete their work placements and, having earned some cash, can travel to far-flung destinations to volunteer with organisations like marine conservationists Coral Cay.

Extreme Blue

There are also options out there for students who want to squeeze several different placements into their year off, or prefer to stay in education and undertake placements during their uni breaks.

Many major blue-chip companies are now independently offering their own work experience opportunities. IBM runs a 12-week summer internship programme called Extreme Blue for second-year university students pursuing technology or business degrees in fifteen of its R&D centres worldwide.

This year at IBM’s Hursley laboratory in the UK selected students worked in teams of four – three technology students and one business - to develop a technology and business plan for a new product or service that addresses an existing market need. Projects included Smart Cursor, which aims to provide an input system allowing disabled users to be able to effectively operate a cursor on screen. Another, Smart Car, was geared to producing an in-car system that provides user identification and a predictive human-machine interface. So successful is this initiative that this year saw 900 applicants applying for just 16 places.

Apps for Good

Another computer giant Dell has partnered with non-profit organisation CDI Europe to launch Apps for Good – a programme designed to encourage young people to use technology and increase entrepreneurial skills by developing mobile phone apps to tackle problems for social good. In April this year, Dylan Maryk, an A level student aiming to study computer science, embarked on a four-week project with Apps for Good and has since gone on to develop and sell three mobile phone apps to the iPhone Store.

“I went in every day to conduct research into different app development tools aside from the official ones provided by Apple, Microsoft and Google, to be used for a public information base,” explains Maryk. “Aside from designing apps I’ve also learnt how to programme them myself. I’ve gained new skills, had a glimpse of how a company works and made lots of new contacts for the future.”

Universities arranging gap years

There has also been a significant increase in the number of universities establishing links with external organisations to arrange gap years and internships. Lincoln University’s Enterprise internship scheme is one of the most successful.

“A few years ago through funding made available through the then Labour government we started offering organisations £1,500 to take on a graduate intern for a minimum of three to six months,” explains Mark Stow, Careers and Employability Services manager.

“The original scheme was to place 30 students in key industrial sectors – but we ended up generating 50 places – including in small businesses. It was so successful that we decided to continue by investing some of our own money.”

Now the university pays companies £1,000 in exchange for a paid placement for a minimum of three months. “Many companies extend the placements and some have been so impressed that they’ve hired graduates in full-time posts,” says Stow. “It’s a no-risk strategy – it adds employment value, encourages smaller companies who might not traditionally have recruited a graduate and at the very least the intern will gain valuable experience for their CVs.”  

The scheme has also now been adopted within the university itself where Enterprise pays various departments to take on a graduate.  

Enternships.com

But it’s not just organisations and universities that enable work placements – now students themselves are getting in on the act. One such is Rajeeb Dey who came up with Enternships.com - a platform that helps students and graduates connect with entrepreneurial work placements – while studying electronics and management at Oxford.

“I used to run entrepreneurship societies there and I kept being approached by businesses and start-ups who wanted to advertise placements to our members,” Dey explains. “It became clear that there was a gap to be filled so I decided that this would become my business which launched in 2009.”

The companies on Enternships.com’s books comprise mostly technology start-ups, which, while not having the brand of big blue chips, do provide an exciting and rewarding work placement opportunity. The majority of the organisation’s 3,000 placements are in the UK but opportunities are also available in 20 different countries including the US – their second biggest market.

“In a start-up business you have to get your hands dirty and get involved in a whole range of stuff. You might have to make the coffee but you also get the chance to work alongside the ceo, which gives you a broader range of exposure that you might not get in a large corporate,” Dey highlights.

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