Internships. Fair? Or foul.

Internships. Fair? Or foul.


As one of the UK’s leading graduate careers experts, Prospects is expertly positioned to comment on the recent ‘Pay As You Go’ report¹ that was commissioned by The Sutton Trust (a foundation that’s well-known for its dedication to improving social mobility through education). The survey in question, was designed to gain a detailed view of the types of internships graduates are completing in their first years’ employment and Prospects have long since been advocates for adopting fairer internship practices.

In addition to its own long-standing work experience and internship portfolio, Prospects manages the government-supported Graduate Talent Pool, which banned unpaid internship opportunities from the site in 2011. It has also worked with organisations such as Intern Aware to raise awareness about the issue amongst students, graduates and employers.

As a topline spoiler, around 58% of internships around Britain are unpaid (defined  in the report as either completely unpaid, those that offer expenses only, and those paying below National Minimum Wage).

Chris Rea, Higher Education Services Manager at Prospects, said “Unpaid internships are the scourge of the graduate labour market. They inhibit social mobility, trap graduates in a cycle of hopelessness and damage their self-esteem.”

So, what else did the report have to say? 27% of graduates surveyed have taken on an unpaid internship, with many having to rely on parents, friends and second jobs to get by. Internship popularity is also on the up, with 46% of 21-23 year olds having done one, compared to 37% of 27-29 year olds. Younger graduates are also more likely to have taken on more than one internship.

And here’s the 58% spoiler stat we opened with. There are around 100,000 interns working, of which 58,000 are classified as unpaid. 43% of unpaid interns rely on living for free with family and friends; 26% rely on parents for money and 27% had to work another paid job in order to fund their internship.

To give you an example as to what an internship costs an individual, a single person living in London will have to find a minimum of £1,100 per month to get by. The report rightly argues that less advantaged young people are potentially being shut out of certain career paths. Let’s take industries such as media and the arts (including fashion, theatre and tv). Up to 86% of internships on offer are unpaid. That’s a lot of untapped talent they’re closing themselves off to.

The report also looked at internships in politics and found that 31% of staff working in the offices of MPs and Peers in Westminster had completed unpaid work, including 36% of Labour staffers and 28% of Conservatives. 51% found their job through an advertisement, whilst 26% gained it through personal connections.

When it comes to the legalities around unpaid internships, it seems both graduates and employers are confused. Under national minimum wage legislation, interns must be paid if they are expected to work set hours or on set tasks. Up to 50% of employers and 37% of graduates surveyed were not aware most such unpaid internships are likely to be illegal.

Given that 70% of employers say that interns do useful work for their business and admit to little training being given, it does feel unfair. Yet we’re sure that if you asked employers as to why they run internships, they’d genuinely see it as a win-win. They’d probably reason that by offering work experience, they’re giving the graduate greater potential for securing future employment. Sure, if you can afford it.

What’s the solution? Well the Pay As You Go report was published on the same day as a bill to ban unpaid internships longer than one month and that those over a month should be paid at least the National Minimum Wage and, ideally, the Living Wage. The bill also proposes that internship positions should be advertised publicly (as opposed to informally), and that recruitment processes should be fair, transparent and based on merit.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust and chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said “Unpaid internships prevent young people from low and moderate-income backgrounds from accessing careers in some of the most desirable sectors such as journalism, fashion, the arts and law. This is a huge social mobility issue.  It prevents these young people from getting a foot on the ladder.

“In order to help tackle this situation internships should be advertised, not offered through informal networks.  This locks out the many young people who don’t have connections.

“The legal grey area around internships allows employers to offer unpaid internships with impunity. That is why the law should be changed.  We are advocating that all internships over four weeks should be required to pay at least the National Minimum Wage and preferably the Living Wage.”

Chris Rea, Higher Education Services Manager at Prospects, also said “While it’s welcome news that graduate internships are growing, it’s disappointing that so many graduates continue to work unpaid.

“Graduates should never trade their basic right to be paid for the promise of skills development, great experiences and an enhanced CV. The world’s fifth largest economy should be more than capable of providing both.

“Graduate internships have become a fixture in the recruitment landscape over the last ten years. They come in many shapes and sizes and in all industry sectors but there is one non-negotiable fact about graduate internships – they absolutely must, in all circumstances, be paid.”

In an open letter, Lord Holmes of Richmond (who originated the bill in the House of Lords), has called on the government to end the scandal of unpaid internships. He said, “One of the most pernicious ways in which the advantages of the fortunate few are entrenched is through the illegal yet widespread practice of unpaid internships. Inevitably and obviously only those who can afford to work free are able to access these opportunities which in turn lead to paid jobs and ultimately careers in areas such as journalism, fashion and, most shockingly, politics.

“The government have said they are taking the problem seriously, yet in the past nine years HMRC has recorded no prosecutions in relation to interns and the National Minimum Wage. It is unsurprising that individuals are reluctant to report companies or employers. If you believe this practice to be an unpleasant but necessary way of getting a foot in the door you are unlikely to do anything that would slam the door shut completely. For countless others it is yet another way of ensuring so many doors remain closed.”


¹ Survey sample size: Between the 24th September and 9th October, YouGov surveyed 1,003 business leaders online (420 of whom offered internships) and 2,614 adults (1,023 had completed an internship), whilst ComRes interviewed 234 Palace of Westminster staffers online.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

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