Interns: The Whole System is Wrong

One of the more worrying American imports in recent years is the so-called ‘internship’. Nick Clegg launched an attack on them yesterday, and has opened himself up to ‘hypocrite’ charges as a result.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

[This is a rehash of an article on the subject I first wrote in Nov 2009]
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3 Comments

Filed under Economy, UK, UK Politics

3 responses to “Interns: The Whole System is Wrong

  1. Josh

    I want to take on an intern in the next 6 months to learn about digital marketing direct from an online retailer. I genuinely want to give someone at least 1 week’s experience to help them in their career. There’s not that much in it for me/my company.

    We can’t afford to pay them but to be honest there’s not a great deal they can do that will benefit us either – i.e. they can’t just walk into an unpaid job here. Hence, deeper regulation and creating in effect a job that’s poorly paid for a short fixed term would only put me off.

    However, I completely understand your rant. Some of my friends worked for weeks as slaves for no reward other than a reference and ~6 lines on a CV.

  2. Josh, what you describe sounds more like the old fashioned ‘work experience’ – all schools try and place kids for a week somewhere in what we used to call 5th year (year 9?). Contact a school and they will snap your arm off and send someone because they have a genuine interest and not because, as Clegg would say, their Dad plays golf with you. I’m fully supportive of that kind of thing!

  3. Jacob Hatton

    This article was a while ago, but I’ll just leave a comment anyway. Basically, you can’t claim Jobseekers Allowance whilst doing an internship unless there is a guaranteed job/training path to a job at the end which almost all employers do not offer. So basically you are actively making yourself worse off in the short term whilst doing it.

    I’m lucky enough to have been brought up in London which meant that emasculating as it is to move home, I could easily do it. Not so much if you are from elsewhere.

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