Like all millennials seeking a career foothold, Elsie Korir, a graduate of Moi University, took an internship – a road to nowhere – at an upstart production company at age 26 as a way of breaking into movie production. Inspired by our very own Lupita Nyong’o she too wanted to make it to hollywood, and she had to start from somewhere right? It didn’t pay, but she hoped the exposure would open doors. When that proved to be a dead end, Elsie went to a second agency, media based, again as an unpaid intern, and when that went nowhere, she tried again, after all third time’s a charm right? This time she opted for trying her hand at script writing. It was a small company – like they always are – and they were willing to take her on, but they couldn’t afford her, she gave in, because of this thing called hope- and took an unpaid internship once more. When one of my team members met Elsie a year ago, she was trying to convince them to buy an internet package. Once more she was interning as a “sales and marketing trainee” for three months. The fire she once had in her eyes was long gone, and even though she was earning a little income from the sales gig she had taken in, her voice was filled with worry when my colleague asked her how she got here, she quickly whispered to her “I fear I wasted all my years in internships that took me nowhere, and now I feel like no one is ever going to hire me, so I have settled for this.”
The intern glass ceiling isn’t unique. Mark Otieno , in his hay days, remembers how all his classmates dreamed of interning at prestigious companies like the UN, Amref, Safaricom, all well to do companies, whereas for him, all he wanted to do was intern at Java, because he thought at the time, that if he did his internship there, he would eat all the food one can eat, and not pay a single dime. Fancy huh? (he couldn’t be further from the truth) My other colleague had a classmate who had mapped out his entire career plan, he would intern at one of the big five accounting companies, for three months he had said, the company would realize how good he was, and take him on, and in a year he was confident he would be making strides in the organization and changing the world one accounting formulae at a time, but that did not happen. Today he is a safaricom agent, and we diligently use his services for all our Mpesa services. Another classmate had ambitions of being an air hostess. She would intern at Kenya Airways and would always practice her words right, “Welcome to flight 547,…” she would say, today she spends her time blogging, because, once more, the road to her internship led to nowhere. My current content lead felt trapped in the game too. For so long in the name of “honing her skills” she did internships after internships – I know we have all heard of serial entrepreneurs, well she was a serial intern. From one company to the next, she was always interning, so much so that years later, she felt trapped. That led her to spending her time, writing online articles, and to date, she has graduated into a content specialist.
There was a time not so long ago, when internships were reserved for college students. But that era is passing, with loosely defined internships — some paying a small stipend, some nothing — replacing traditional entry-level jobs for many fresh out of college. Take John for example. John over the years had built his small accounting firm to a scalable size of 12 employees. However the workload had since increased and instead of hiring another member to his team, he opted for an intern. Why? Because he felt, his cash flow would be affected if he added another to his team, whereas, he felt the “intern” needed the opportunity and therefore he could afford to pay the bare minimum to an intern who was doing the same work as a hired hand. For him he felt the need could be filled by an intern, whereas the intern took the position thinking they will be able to grow into the organization, which was not John’s intention at all, leading once more to a road to nowhere. This intern centric culture has really led to many blogs, trending hashtags over the years, and the one that took the cake for me was watching the movie “The Internship” – Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn playing a pair of 40-something google interns- funny as it was, that is a stark reality in our world today.
Recently in a highly publicized tweet Founder and CEO of Nailab, a leading Kenyan business incubator, accelerator and seed-fund, Mr Sam Gichuru, took to twitter about internships in Kenya. The feedback from KOT was enough, to tell that what internship was years ago, is not what it is today. The game has changed in more ways that we can imagine, with various variables adding to it. With high unemployment rate, and a sunny economy, contributing to the dire status.
As business leaders and thought leaders, we have a role to play in building young minds. In Kenya it remains unclear whether all interns are subject to the minimum wage, pay or a stipend, as the National Employment Authority Act describes an employee as a person employed for wages, including an apprentice, intern and indentured learner. For interns in the public sector, according to the Internship Policy and Guidelines for the Public Service May 2016, interns should get a stipend.
Article 2.6 reads, “Internship shall be non-remunerative. However, interns will be paid a stipend as may be determined by the Commission from time to time. MDAs will be expected to make budgetary allocation for the stipend on an annual basis.”
Article 2.9 enumerates intern entitlements as “sick leave as applicable in the prevailing regulations; annual leave; compassionate leave; stipend; and subsistence allowance when out of the station at a rate to be determined by the Commission from time to time.”
So as thought leaders, how can we change the narrative? How can we build the young minds that as they pass through our spaces, we build them for the better and prepare them for the future they have always dreamed of? How do you build your interns? Do you teach and nurture them? Or have you been guilty on taking them on the road to nowhere?