Debate: are unpaid internships a blessing or a curse?

and debate unpaid internships: are companies doing us a favour by offering invaluable experience  or exploiting students and perpetuating elitism? 

For:

“Unpaid internships are doing us a favour”

While our grandparents went to University happily with the prospect of getting a job with their well-earned degree, the competitive landscape of employment proves to be a challenge for our generation. Employers are looking for well-rounded individuals who possess a wide variety of skills, from project management to coding.

The truth is, employers expect a lot more from students now than they did years ago. As much as our degree is a vital aspect of our employability, companies are looking for individuals that stand out from the stack of CVs. In a world where getting a first is not enough anymore, what can we do to get a foot in the door?

In a world where getting a first is not enough anymore, what can we do to get a foot in the door?

While students can benefit hugely from getting involved in their university communities, societies and sports, there’s only so much that being president of a society can teach you. Nonetheless, students will be able to navigate a graduate job interview easily when they look back at their university experiences. But again, we need to ask ourselves: how do we land that interview in the first place?

Applying for internships are a source of pain and stress to us all; however, they are an invaluable source of experience and learning. Taking into account that most graduates in social sciences and humanities end up pursuing a career far from their degree, internships provide that crucial insight into what a professional career looks like and what skills are required for that industry. While everyone has applied for a few of them, the chances of actually landing a paid internship are quite narrow, with only 52% of companies paying their interns.

A few factors paint the picture of landing that first paid salary. For example, let’s think about how many hours it takes to complete online questionnaires, cover letters and psychometric tests. On the face of it, companies are on the hunt for the best talent on offer, and if they’re going to pay an intern £2,000 a month, they’ll want the best player. Although this may not be the case for industry giants Goldman Sachs or Google, it’s certainly the case for smaller companies, and especially industries like media, charities, fashion and even parliament.

The government has attempted to ban unpaid internships several times to reduce inequality with the argument that only socio-economic privilege will land and sustain an intern in a large city like London. Now, there’s a huge issue with banning unpaid internships, as that will limit the number of opportunities for students. Everyone would like to get paid for their work, but companies are doing us a favour, as we embark on a learning curve that will benefit us in the long run.

Everyone would like to get paid for their work, but companies are doing us a favour

The myth is that if we ban unpaid internships, all companies and charities will instantly pay their interns the National Living Wage. The problem is that it hugely depends on the sector, as small businesses and charities may take hundreds of interns over the summer for 2-4 week placements. By contrast, if unpaid experiences were banned, they would end up closing the program or only offering a handful of places to the best of the best – and this creates an increasing demand as applications will rise. Instead of providing more equal opportunities for everyone, it will close the door to thousands of students who require experience to land a paid job in those selected industries.

As the Sutton Trust reports, one in four graduates has experienced an unpaid internship before landing their job. I also took an unpaid internship a few days ago and at times, I felt I should be the one paying them for their work. If you’re learning something new, that you’ve never experienced before, surely you should do something to get that reward. If the kings of Fashion PR or the BBC offers you work experience, I’m sure a student interested in that area will go  to the moon and back to get it.

At times, I felt I should be the one paying them for their work

The main issue at stake is affordability, especially in cities like London, where accommodation and travel expenses can cost a minimum of £900 per month. This isn’t to say that it’s impossible, as 27% of unpaid interns afford this by working part-time during the weekends or staying with friends/family.

27% of unpaid interns afford this by working part-time during the weekends or staying with friends/family.

Unpaid internships provide a prodigious experience that gives us primary insight into what a graduate role encompasses. Most placements not only teach, but also allow interns to test their skills, produce a project or work directly with a senior executive. However, I agree that prolonged unpaid internships that last over a year can be counterproductive and give space for exploitation.

Unpaid placements of fewer than three months can give a point of entry for students by providing them with the skill set required for their own path. These experiences are invaluable, and we should keep them as they are the training wheels of our tomorrow. Banning them will only limit the amount of opportunities on offer and will end up creating more inaccessibility in a saturated market.

Against:

“Industries cannot change for the better if we do not radically reconstruct the entry routes”

The net of unpaid internships casts itself as far and wide as the knowledge that students will take whatever experience they can get. Minimum wage is not on the table; expenses if you’re lucky; but free labour is guaranteed.

We wouldn’t work for free at the local cafe, so we shouldn’t have to work for free at national companies

We wouldn’t work for free at the local cafe, so we shouldn’t have to work for free at national companies. To focus the issue on a singular industry, newsrooms across the country take on multiple prospective journalists every year for unpaid work experience. Placements last from two days to a month. When we’re there, it’s clear they need the labour as much as we need the experience.

It’s clear they need the labour as much as we need the experience

The obvious issue here is the elitism they uphold. According to Journo Resources, 90% of journalists are white, 11% are working class and ⅔ are situated in the South-East. Clearly, experience is more readily accessible to people with connections in the newsroom, who are mostly (say it with me) middle-class white males.

Unpaid internships maintain the same narrow circle which journalists are recruited from, but importantly, they also negatively affect reporting in the media. Recruiting from a wider demographic means issues are reported more faithfully.

 Recruiting from a wider demographic means issues are reported more faithfully

In his 2011 book, CHAVS, Owen Jones compared the difference in the media coverage of Madeleine McCann’s case and the coverage of Karen Matthews; a child from a middle-class background and a child from a working-class background. He noted the middle-class backgrounds of the journalists covering the case and how their language inherently held prejudice against the Matthews family. How can the issues of working-class families accurately be reported on if none of the journalists can empathise with their position?

But the issue manifests itself in different forms. Industries are riddled with conscious and unconscious racism; a direct result of recruiters picking people from the same privileged circles. The inability to hire anyone who isn’t part of the elite social groups created a Dove campaign showing a black woman taking off her top to reveal a white woman underneath after using their products; a deodorant advert for Nivea which claimed: ‘White is Purity.’

Perhaps you think these issues are unrelated – a professional marketing team is a world away from the intern at the bottom of the pile. Maybe these companies don’t even offer internships. But as long as unpaid internships are available, the idea that only privileged people are able to apply for jobs like this will persist. The same narrow stream of people will be recruited, and these kind of messages will continue to be sent out.

Even those who argue against unpaid internships seem removed from the issue

Even those who argue against unpaid internships seem removed from the issue. Owen Jones discussed in CHAVS “the reality is that it is more and more difficult for people from working-class backgrounds to get their foot in the door of newspapers or broadcasters.” Yet, at the Student Publication Awards in 2019 he gave a talk in which he dismissed a question about not being paid for a week-long work placement at The Guardian, on the grounds that it was only a week. 

Industry professionals are ignorant of the harsh economic realities of unpaid internships; accommodation in London for a week is roughly £150, and this if we generously round down. These internships, or placements, or whatever guise you want to put them under to disguise the fact that it’s free labour, prevent social mobility and stop people from getting vital experience for jobs. Industries cannot change for the better if we do not radically reconstruct the entry routes.

These internships, or placements, or whatever guise you want to put them under to disguise the fact that it’s free labour, prevent social mobility and stop people from getting vital experience

Living standards, fair representation, people feeling shut out from certain workplaces, media coverage, publicity campaigns: all these are issues which unpaid internships directly and indirectly feed into, whether we realise it or not.

They cannot continue. It starts with making internships accessible to people of all backgrounds, paying people, making them aware that they are valued in the workplace. It does not start with the 1% thinking they can understand the rest of the world.

Image by 401(K) 2012 via Flickr

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

 

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.