Unpaid internships – valuable experience or exploitation?


We do not endorse unpaid internships and ensure that any opportunities we advertise are paid or are within the legal exclusions. However, we are also aware that many students feel unpaid internships are the only option to gain necessary experience and unfortunately, the practice of unpaid internships remains a big issue.  So, whose responsibility is it to stamp this out? Here Barrie Grey, our Labour Market Resources Intelligence Co-ordinator, shares his thoughts.

With over 20% of people between aged 16 and 25 unemployed and a competitive graduate labour market, should long-term unpaid internships simply be an acceptable part of life if you want to get ahead of the game? I think now more than ever it is important for society, business and government to reflect on this issue and make a decision that benefits everyone seeking work in competitive circumstances.

Of course there are pros and cons and it would be a little churlish to simply take the moral high ground and suggest that all work should be paid. However we need to properly measure the impact of long-term unpaid work on the economy and society as well as examine whether there is really a level playing field.

So what would those who offer and take up unpaid internships say are the pros?

  • It gives a person a realistic insight into their career area.
  • It enables people to gain valuable skills and experience that would help them apply for paid work.
  • It provides fantastic networks of professionals that you might call upon in future employment or when trying to find work.
  • It might even lead to a paid job with the same company.

Many employers go on to suggest that they cannot afford, and should not have to pay, for someone to gain work experience if they are not necessarily adding the same value as a paid employee. However it could be argued that with over 100,000 graduates or students likely to take up an unpaid internship and 78% of graduates in fields like media, politics and fashion expecting to have to work unpaid to move up the ladder, employers don’t bother to pay because they don’t have to.

The idea that unpaid internships are a universally accepted part of some industries does not really stand up as a good reason to continue as some of the best parts of our society have been brought about by radical change rather than accepting the status quo.

So with that in mind what are the cons and why shouldn’t unpaid internships just be acceptable?

  • Unpaid internships are often only open to those with a certain level of privilege. Let’s take politics as an example; most of the internships would be based in London. The average living costs for London are around £280 a week so how could a person really work for free? Well if you look at evidence it is mainly those who have access to that kind of money from other sources such as family. With an ever increasing focus on social mobility and equal society, is the world of unpaid internships really a level playing field?
  • Taking this point further, many unpaid internships are gained through family contacts. This means it is often a case of who you know and not what you know. In fact one of the first chinks in the Cameron-Clegg political bromance was their disagreement on whether internships and work experience, in government, should be dished out to friends and neighbours of politicians.
  • Do you really get anything for free? A recent survey of employers that offered unpaid internships suggested that many based problems on the statement ‘Well what do you expect if they are not being paid’ In fact unpaid internships are often unstructured, with little genuine commitment from either side.
  • It could be suggested that unpaid internships devalue degree qualifications, suggesting that the skills and knowledge developed are not sufficient or related enough to require paying for.

Of course there are some exceptions to this and I would be wrong to suggest that short-term work experience, work shadowing or volunteering for a charitable organisation shouldn’t be encouraged. However, I really do not believe that long-term unpaid internships are the solution for increasing graduate employment.

My belief is now is a time to take action and everyone has to play their part.

  • Students and graduates for their part have to ask whether they want to leave, as their legacy to future students, a climate of unpaid internships that are often only available to the more privileged.
  • Businesses have to accept that they have a responsibility to increase skills in the workforce and, as it is they who ultimately benefit, this shouldn’t be done without a decent level of remuneration.
  • Finally the government needs to take the lead responsibility in deciding the future for unpaid internships. At the moment things are out of control with a worrying trend of people even having to pay for ‘experiences’. The government must act by either enforcing the minimum wage legislation for those illegally offering  unpaid work (see Careerweb for more information on employment rights) or by working with businesses to develop schemes that give access to competitive industries without disadvantaging the less socially mobile.

What do you think?

1 Comment

Filed under Work Experience

One response to “Unpaid internships – valuable experience or exploitation?

  1. Pingback: The Social Media Intern – A complete Non-Sense? | Bizinga!

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