Unpaid internships: rich in experience or an unfair trade?

Although most students think that internships should be paid, some fear that enforcing this by law could do more harm than good.

A recent survey by WikiJob has found that 75% of its respondents now view internships ‘as essential to securing a graduate job’, and a similar percentage of the opinion that ‘employers should be forced by law to pay their interns.’ 44% of respondents had undertaken an unpaid internship in the last six months and despite the consensus that they should be paid, 58% were still prepared to take one regardless.

WikiJob co-founder Ed Mellett said that:

“Over the last few years government has brought in legislation to protect older workers, disabled workers, temporary workers… but nothing has been done to protect young people…”

Students have been debating this on The Student Room since September, after a thread was started asking ‘Should internships be subject to minimum wage law?‘ In just 8 days, the thread received over 200 posts and witnessed wide-ranging debate on the issue.

The original post suggested that unpaid internships are fundamentally exclusive, as they are often immediately inaccessible for those without the financial means or backing to be able to afford to do them.

  • The balance of benefits

This raised many issues around the balance of benefits to the employer and the intern. The main basis for dismissing the idea of the employer paying is that

‘the currency is gaining skills and experience… which is ultimately money in the long run.’

Suggested advantages for employers included the opportunity to perform a ‘low-risk’ trial of new talent by getting to know their practical skills rather than just their academic results, which is good PR as it advertises the company’s sense of ‘goodwill’.

In response to the point that ‘many companies already offer paid placements for students‘, implying it is not a matter of finances, many feared that there was not a strong enough incentive and that if companies were forced to pay their intern, it would become even more competitive and difficult to gain experience, as they would offer less opportunities.

Two professionals provided conflicting opinions:

    1. ‘every single one was a huge short term burden to the company, and… only two have been retained.’

    2. ‘I can’t see how someone who is around for more than a couple of months (at most) can’t be contributing to the business through the work they do…’

Those opposed to a minimum wage generally felt that as it is a learning experience, why should employers pay for individuals to learn skills rather than contribute any? One current intern refuted this point by highlighting that

‘it has been made explicitly clear the positive contribution my work is going to make… A good internship scheme benefits both the employer and the intern…’

  • Experience for labour: a fair trade-off?

‘If you select people not on the basis of talent or ability, on how much their parents can afford to support them, the country will always have an artificially reduced pool of recruits into jobs…’

Those in favour of introducing a minimum wage agreed internships are ’great for… skills and experience… but absolutely terrible for social mobility‘, and likened the current arrangement to ‘a method of giving those with excess money an opportunity to leap frog the competition.’ Among those disputing this, some referred to it as a divide ‘of aspiration, not finances’.

A few posts expressed the view that shorter internships or placements are needed to increase chances of getting longer ones, as

‘it seems that you have to start alot smaller if you dont have money/connections…’

With regards to ‘social exclusion’, many students on The Student Room accepted the premise and put forward alternative suggestions:

  • an apprentice wage or intern wage to cover travel and lunch;
  • a law limiting the number of hours an intern can do, so they can subsidise themselves through an additional paid job;
  • a third party that funds amenities for interns unable to fund themselves;
  • the company could provide accommodation, such as a shared ‘intern house’;
  • those people who find taking unpaid work prohibitive can take jobs that are paid, which still provide valuable experience’;
  • abolishing internships, ‘if there would not be internships then companies would not be able to demand them from applicants’.

‘A lot of employers exploit young workers because they don’t have experience which is a fault of both the unis and the employers…’

Some blamed university courses saying that they should provide students with opportunities to get the pre-requisite skills and experience to enter certain sectors (e.g. fashion, media, or law) during their degrees.

One post linked to the 2009 report Unleashing Aspiration’, by Labour MP, Alan Milburn, as section 7.3 specifically focused on affordability and making internships ‘more fairly available’. The impact of the report prompted the creation of the Intern Aware campaign against unpaid internships.

Among those who felt unable to make a decision either way, one individual applying for internships effectively summed up the sentiments of those surveyed:

‘it means… earning absolutely nothing, to learn skills which might not even get me a job… highly unfair… yet, not enough to put me off from applying because I’m not in a position to turn down the opportunity.’