Internship: How the increase in ‘Work Experience’ is damaging to our economy and society

One of the more worrying American imports in recent years is the so-called ‘internship’.  The trend was recently highlighted by the BBC in relation to MPs use/misuse of them.   The beeb have now followed up with a timely article explaining how the trend is spreading across numerous industries in the UK.
For anyone with no idea what a internship is – basically employers offer a program that gives students, new graduates or ‘gap-year kids’ the opportunity to get ‘work-experience’ for the company, unpaid, often for a University summer, sometimes for much longer.   The argument goes that that the company is doing the kid a favour – these aren’t real jobs, really just admin – but it gives the interns a ‘foot-in-the-door’, a ‘network of contacts in the industry’, the chance to check it is really the right industry for them and most importantly the magic ‘experience’ to add to their CV.  This helps escape the job-seeker’s paradox that you can’t get a job without experience and you can’t get experience without a job.  The employers are often so impressed with interns that at the end job offers may be made. When presented like that it sounds like the company is doing a great social good.  ‘Helping job-seekers!’.  Very worthy.  The reality isn’t quite so straightforward nor is it the win-win for all it first appeared. 
I am a huge advocate of the importance of both meritocracy and competition (see my philosophy page).  Meritocracy is key to social mobility, which in turn is key to attaining social justice.  As we drift to internships becoming a ‘cultural norm’ in the UK we’re creating a blocker to meritocracy.  In the long run this will harm our economy and society.  
When you listen to the work that interns really do they are typically not ‘work-experience’ in the sense of shadowing someone doing their day-job or having a go while the incumbent looks on.  No, more normally they have interns doing ‘real jobs’.  They’re expected to arrive and work set hours, and often kicked out of the program if they do not.  They have set administrative duties to perform which keep the business going.  To me this crosses the line from ‘work experience’ to outright exploitation.  If the interns weren’t doing this work then somebody in paid employment would be.  That person would then be off the unemployment register and paying tax and NI and pumping those earnings back into the economy.  Instead we have them still on the dole whilst the student extends their debt and works for free with no guarantee of any reward at the end.   I can only spot one real winner in the arrangement.
We need to consider who has the means to take internships:  Who can offer three months of their lives working without pay, living in a big city?  Only people with alternative financial support.  Straight away that excludes a whole chunk of society.  The kids from the estates to who we’ve been preaching  if they work hard they can achieve anything; who then put their heads-down, ignored the peer-pressure, worked hard, got the GCSEs and A-Levels, went to Uni and got the 2-1  or first degree’s now find themselves stuck in the old job-seeker’s paradox and flipping burgers,   angry and disenchanted with society and saddled with university debt.   Meanwhile, the well-to-do kid who scraped through their GCSEs and A-Levels thanks to the kind of one-on-one educational attention you only get at the best independent schools, who drank their way through uni but pulled their socks up just enough to get an OK 2:2 sails into the intern post because they can stay with Mum and Dad and have an allowance.  They get the magic experience on the CV, they get the contacts and the reference, they get the end job.  Now,  they may well be ‘able’ enough to do the job, but the ‘better’ candidate has missed out.  That stinks to me every bit as much as those well meaning, misguided affirmative action plans companies have in place.   Both spit in the face of the idea of meritocracy.
The trend is embedding.  In some industries it is almost becoming a pre-requisite to entry that you have done an internship.  We must level this playing field.  It pains me to say it, because by nature I’m against regulation but  to get proper meritocracy and competition working we should legistlate that if the internship has the characteristics of real employment then legally it must be treated as such with a formal contract, fair selection process, and at least a minimum wage salary.  In the long run this will be a real win-win for every player in the economy. 

Rather than wait for such regulation I hope the companies realise now that they are being short-sighted by saving pennies here which could cost them pounds later.  The barrier to entry means they’re potentially missing out the very best, hungriest talent.  The outlay of paying minimum wage for administrative support is minimal.  The return on genuinely recruiting the best people into your firm for the long-run will pay back that tenfold.    Meritocracy is not just good for society – it is good for business too.

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Internship: How the increase in ‘Work Experience’ is damaging to our economy and society

  1. Broken Record

    The point in todays report isn’t that it is just working for free – it’s paying big fees up front before you can work for free. I have no hope of a job.

  2. Little Mo

    Nailed it. One big slave labour scam disguised as a job interview to suck in the desperate… It’s still the intern whose Dad plays golf with the MD who gets kept on.

  3. Pete W.

    The article could have been done in one sentence: ‘Internships are both elitist and exploitive.’

    Done. Would have saved you a ton of typing.

  4. …but I’m glad you expressed it in such detail, exposing this trade in interns for the exploitative nonsense it is.

    It is high time HMRC did their job and pursued employers who are not paying the legal minimum to their workers with the same vigour with which they pursue eg offshore account holders.

    If you have worked unpaid on the basis of it being an “internship” or “work experience”, we’d love to help you claim the pay you should have got. Have a look here:

    http://tvwatercooler.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=sweat

  5. Kate

    Good article. This issue needs a higher profile. I work in media/film (unpaid!) – half the people on my last job were probably working for free!

  6. Well said. The good news is that the practice is already illegal.

    http://unfairinternships.wordpress.com/resources/

    The bad news is that the laws are not enforced.

  7. exintern: Many Thanks for that link. The booklet contained there from the BIS is very useful. I’d urge any readers who are currently acting as interns to follow the links, read up and make sure you’re not shafted!

  8. I think it’s unfair to pigeon-hole certain types of people but I otherwise agree with this article.

    My former employer insisted that all employees start off as volunteers and if they were good enough he’d start to pay them. He works in the community with young people and unfortunately has started the whole “work experience” thing with young children too.

  9. Your previous employer was being entirely exploitative in behaving in that way. Probationary periods, where people do real work “to prove themselves” must by law, be paid. Not doing so while he waits for people “to prove themselves” is utterly repugnant behaviour for which he should be immediately shopped to the Revenue.

  10. I was, yes Anotonio. If you want to say any more, feel free to email me, I’ll happily talk you through the options. No commitment, I’m at derrywatson@gmail.com.

  11. Tom

    I disagree on just about every count. Not all internships are based around companies getting in cheap/free admin assistants. We spend a lot of time supporting and training interns to the point that we just about break even on time invested vs reward reaped. The jobs our interns do are probably 20% admin at most: the rest is real, interesting client work (we’re a digital agency). Elitist? Balls. Our interns have come from all sorts of backgrounds – it’s not trust funds that have supported them through their internships, it’s evening and weekend work. That’s the sacrifice they’re willing to make to support the opportunity to get into their desired industry. We give them that opportunity (we have since recruited two of them and helped others find work at other agencies). But if we had to pay them minimum wage they would never have got through the door. Why? Because the work our interns do is largely non-core: it enhances our proposition but we don’t need to do it. if you add the cost of wages to the time investment we make in supporting our interns then the programme just doesn’t make economic sense. As a small business, we can’t afford to be generous, and so as a result of this legislation and the recent lobbying/media campaign, we will probably have to stop taking interns. Bang goes your meritocracy if there are no opportunities for people to shine in the first place.

  12. Agree to differ Tom. I will only take on interns at minimum wage.

  13. Jacob

    Evening and weekend work doesn’t pay your rent & food in London.

    Or Manchester. Or Edinburgh. Or Birmingham.

  14. Pingback: Interns: The Whole System is Wrong |

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