Unpaid Internships: A Rite of Passage?

By Kirstin Fairnie

Discussing our plans for the Christmas holidays, a friend told me that she is going to spend a fortnight working in the London office of a major broadcasting company. “It’s paid!” she exclaimed, clearly surprised herself, as I was to hear this relatively unusual fact. Most students I know take it for granted that unless they have spent every holiday working for free their ‘network’ will be so sparse when they graduate that no matter which institution they studied at they will never be able to catch up with their internship-savvy peers. Most assume too that a 2:1 is the norm so unless you get that basic requirement employers will not even look at your application. The results of a survey commissioned by the NUS last week seem to show that it is not just my friends that are feeling the need to pack their CVs with unpaid work: 20% of 18-24-year-olds have worked for free, whilst just 2-3% of their parents’ generation have.

Working for free devalues the worth of interns’ contributions in the workplace and young people have a responsibility to change this pernicious culture.

Along with a growing number of bloggers and student groups, I have fretted about this for a long time. Last week Hazel Blears MP’s campaign to end the illegal practice of unpaid internships that seem to be a mainstay of so many competitive sectors received widespread support in parliament. Her proposed ban on advertising them could come into force from next year.

Internships offer young people an invaluable transition between education and the workplace and I think they should become a compulsory feature of university courses in order to ensure that everybody has fair access to them. How can we be expected to know what the working world is like if we have never had any experience of it? The government needs to help employers by giving them advice on how to finance internship schemes as well as setting out clear guidelines on the structure of internship programmes and what to expect from interns.

Employers advertise unpaid internships because they know that they can get away with it. The real problem is the lack of transparency: young people are frantically trying to work out the magic formula to impress employers and get a job. At the moment, there are sufficient numbers of young people desperate to take on anything they can to add to their CV to enable the practice to continue. But last week we saw David bring down Goliath all over again with Starbucks being pressurised into contributing a fairer proportion of taxes and there is no reason why the same thing cannot happen with unpaid internships, which are not only immoral, but more importantly illegal.

It saddens me that we live in a society where ethical business is so undervalued that some employers seem to take on interns less out of a desire to share their passion for their profession than an enthusiasm to make the most of free labour. If young people passively endorse unpaid internships, we cannot feign surprise if business is conducted ruthlessly and selfishly; but young people who have been helped into the workplace by the support and mentorship of professionals are much more likely to do the same for their successors.

Yet it is short-sighted for employers not to treat their interns in an ethical manner: not only are they only going to get applicants from a small section of society (those young people who can afford not to be paid), but unless they treat their interns in an ethical manner, they cannot bank on any kind of loyalty from their interns. 18-24s are a notoriously fickle social group, and since companies seem somewhat desperate to establish themselves in the psyches of young people, it strikes me as surprising that they have not clocked that unless they give their interns a good experience, they simply cannot expect to convince young people that they really do care about us as much as their twitter accounts and expensive marketing campaigns profess. Luckily, some employers are less myopic in their approach, and I can only hope that ethical employers like Will Wood, who values his employees as members of a community rather than worker-bees, will influence his peers. Perhaps most importantly, employers should remember that you get what you pay for: if you tell someone they are not worth being paid, it is inevitable that once the novelty has worn off, an unpaid intern will put start putting less and less effort into those little leaves he or she makes on your latte in the morning, and that will only be the beginning.

We need to work to make internships mutually beneficial for both interns and companies: whilst employers should not send out a message that unless you are prepared to work for free, you are not really committed, interns should equally not expect to glide their way into top companies and pump them for information and experiences that will look good on their CVs, before applying to work for someone else. Internships should mark the beginning of a relationship between employers and students and both parties should make an effort to get the most out of the experience. Employers should feel that they are getting an opportunity to invigorate their companies with the fresh perspective of the brightest and best young people, hopefully with a view to offering them a more long-term contract, rather than feeling that they nothing more than a vehicle for a glittering reference.

One of the main problems is that only the richest young people can afford to support themselves through an unpaid internship, meaning that if your parents are rich, it is more likely you yourself will end up with sufficient internship experiences to land yourself a well-paid job. If the focus of the UK media and the location of the head-offices of most of the UK’s most successful companies is anything to go by, London is where it is at if you want to get on in life, but the capital is not only glamorous but expensive too. And not everybody has friends and family they can stay with.

Both of my parents are professionals (and they will hate me for saying this, so sorry maw and paw) but until I got to university I considered myself to have had a pretty fortunate upbringing. But thanks to the huge cost of living in the capital, I simply cannot afford not to spend my university holidays working for no money. In some respects, being in the middle of the socio-economic scale can be just as bad, if not worse, than being at the bottom: the Speaker’s Parliamentary Placements Scheme (Hazel Blears’ brainchild) discriminates against young people from middle-income backgrounds by positively discriminating towards people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

This leads to a scenario which in my opinion is no better than a group of privileged individuals using their parents’ contacts to get into highly paid jobs.

The government simply is not working hard enough to enforce the minimum wage laws: their own Graduate Talent Pool, which sounds like a brilliant opportunity to match-make employers and interns, advertises unpaid internships. But to be honest I am hardly surprised that so few voices within parliament are speaking out against them: I have always felt strongly that unless they themselves have worked outside of politics, politicians cannot be expected to accurately represent the views of their constituents. I believe our representatives should be nominated well-respected members of the community, rather than just those people with sufficient political aspirations to put themselves forward as candidates. Many people criticise politicians for being out of touch, but when career politicians like Ed Milliband are heading the Labour Party, is it any surprise?  Unless politics itself becomes more accessible, politicians cannot understand why the wider workplace needs to be made more accessible.

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One Response to Unpaid Internships: A Rite of Passage?

  1. fake says:

    OK, I admit I couldn’t be arsed to read your whole post, to much throwing around of the word “illegal”, hmmm, and ethical.

    All I will add is my own anecdotal experience in a non media company (maybe the media industry is different).

    We have taken on a paid intern for 6 weeks approx, that is we were paid a few thousand to take him on, and he gets no pay.

    UNETHICAL IMMORAL I hear you cry.

    Except what we get is someone who is a fair drag on our manpower resources, has no experience, needs to be shown processes, doesn’t know a lot of the nuances of consultancy work (bright bloke, but simply inexperienced).

    Even though WE were paid, and WE got “free” work from him, commercially we lose out on the deal simply due to the huge time investment, we will probably do it again, cus that’s how we roll, but the bean counters don’t like it.

    If we had to pay him, we would not have done it.

    So the only people being short-sighted, or near-sighed is the government by banning unpaid interns.

    I can see possibly in the media companies using it as an opportunity to just palm projects of to students (I don’t work in the media so don’t know), what I do know is that’s not the reality in this business.

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