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Joy offers graduates hope for first step on career ladder

England has nothing like it.

HELPING HAND: Joy Lewis set up Adopt An Intern, which started as an experiment for the Centre for Scottish Public Policy and has had £500,000 government funding. Picture: Julie Howden

Adopt An Intern is Scotland's win-win solution to the intern dilemma facing graduates and employers, thanks to the spark provided by its creator Joy Lewis.

AAI appeared four years ago as an experiment for the Centre for Scottish Public Policy, which believed graduates needed some kind of help.

Ms Lewis felt that interns should not be exploited by employers, who in turn should pay for work that actually had value, but that hard-up charities and start-up businesses should not be excluded.

Now on course for a total 600 graduate placements, almost half created by grant funding, on the back of a £500,000 vote of confidence from the Scottish Government last August, Ms Lewis, 53, is spreading the word.

She has written to Prime Minister David Cameron and Business Secretary Vince Cable highlighting the trail blazed in Scotland, eventually being told by the Westminster business department that it had "run an internship programme which came to an end in March 2011".

Ms Lewis says: "They have this dreadful unpaid internship culture. There is no government funding or even part-funding, they just have a website. I don't want businesses to be profiting from those unfortunate graduates who are so desperate."

AAI works with organisations to identify graduate-level opportunities, then manages recruitment and short-listing to find the right candidate. It offers a free service including workshops for graduates, and can fund interns in specific cases, delivering a valuable bonus for small and voluntary enterprises.

Until recently, it has been a one-woman mission. "I fell into it in the most amazing way and I have enjoyed every step of the way," the chief executive says. "I feel my enthusiasm has not wavered in the four years since I started it."

Joy Lewis, an airforce child born in Cyprus, spent her teenage school years in Morayshire when her father was posted to RAF Lossiemouth. When he moved south to Brize Norton, she trained as a bilingual secretary and at 20 she won a tough selection contest to join the Foreign Office, which brought postings to Rio and Buenos Aires.

Marriage to a diplomat took her to Germany where she taught English and helped set up a retail clothing business, only to return to the FO and work on its Latin American and Middle Eastern desks.

She eventually returned to Scotland (divorced and now with her present partner, a sales director for a software company) and worked in events, marketing, and consultancy for start-up companies. "I was mixing with young entrepreneurs and seeing how patient and dedicated they were," Ms Lewis says.

After joining the Centre for Scottish Public Policy, an independent member-based think tank, "I guess I got talent-spotted", she says. "They had a list of things they wanted to achieve and right in the middle was 'help graduates'. I said 'what about an internship programme?' I went to the members, who came back in their droves and said this is a great idea - 22 of them said 'can I have an intern tomorrow', and 11 threw money at me."

The trial programme began with a desk and a phone. "Without any funding I managed to place six graduates. I said I will run with it but I needed funding, I needed to be paid but not just that, I had a vision that the graduates had to be paid, that the employers should pay - but I was also thinking about those wonderful start-ups, how would they pay?"

Ms Lewis raised £30,000 of funding in early 2010, and succeeded in placing 40 interns, guaranteeing each of them 240 hours of paid part-time work.

"We said we would double that figure by finding businesses that would pay, and pay whatever they could afford. Some of our graduates were earning £9 to £10 an hour, up to £15, and that remains the case. It shows businesses can be very honest about what they can afford."

In the second year Ms Lewis attracted EU funding to place interns in the Highlands and Islands.

Crucially, the structure ensures placements are linked to specific short-term work, she says. "Otherwise the danger is that the business feels it has to look after these graduates and wet-nurse them, they might sit at a desk or shadow someone, they might not be given a proper project to do, and sometimes the business can't find time to bring the graduate up to date with what the business is all about."

The interns meanwhile like to be part-time. "Often they have their fingers in other pies, they may be trying to hold down a job and are reluctant to lose it."

Employers are asked to interview at least three candidates, and AAI offers advice to those who clearly need it - for instance, those who send the same application letter to every employer without customising.

AAI tracks its interns and has found 76% are in a permanent job within a year and almost all the remainder go on to another internship or further education.

The organisation has had no advertising budget, relying on word of mouth via the universities, but attracts an average 25 applicants per opportunity. The Scottish Government funding has enabled the appointment of three staff, including business development director David Mitchell, a former Kwik-Fit operations director and chief executive at Falkirk FC. AAI has begun placing interns overseas, through a German exchange scheme, and is attracting interest from other countries. "We have had a lot of inquiries from Asia and are keen to take that forward, and from Europe as well - Spain, France, Poland and Jersey," Ms Lewis reveals.

She is also developing new versions of the AAI offer to widen the opportunity to multinational businesses and government departments, including those reluctant because they are "worried about having to take people on permanently".

Ms Lewis says: "There are still a lot of disaffected graduates out there, who were told there would be a job for them by our generation and there was nothing for them.

"I feel things were worse when we started four years ago, I do think we and other organisations have made an impression, the government has pushed this and encouraged people to get involved and we have seen the results, but there is still so much more to be done."

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