Unpaid Internships: The Debate

Unpaid internships are a hot topic at the moment, with a number of leading UK universities and job boards banning them and questions over there legality, it looks like time is being called on student and graduate free labour. But I’m not sure the issue is quite as black and white as first glance might suggest.

For me the debate centers around two contradicting issues –

  • Unpaid internships are inherently unfair.
  • Banning unpaid internships will undoubtably lead to a drop in the number of internships giving less opportunity for young people to get their foot on the career ladder.

Unpaid internships are most definitely unfair.

Why are they so unfair? Because generally speaking unless mum and dad have the means to support you, you can’t afford to work full time when you’re not getting paid – how are you supposed to pay rent and eat?? Let alone anything else.

So that means those with the resources can live off an allowance, do great unpaid internships and secure themselves a great job. Those who have to pay their own way in the world have to get a job with a decent wage, limiting their opportunities just because they have to support themselves. Fantastic for social mobility!

That’s terrible – ban them, ban them, ban them! We already live in a country where your income is more likely to reflect your fathers’ than any where else in the world – ban them!!

But there are two sides to every story.

Banning them isn’t so simple.

On the other side of the debate is the undeniable fact that if you ban unpaid internships there will definitely be less internships. At a time when unemployment and competition are at an all time high, less opportunities can’t be good for graduates can it?

It’s important we’re not guilty of generalising all employers as super rich faceless corporations. About half of private sector turnover and 60% of jobs come from small to medium organisations. Times are tight for everyone not just graduates, and faced with growing public pressure and possibly an outright ban many will just stop their internship programs altogether simply because they can’t afford it.

Remember if you’re on a good internship (e.g. not just photocopying and making coffee) they’re training you – you’re not going to be contributing while you find your feet, plus you’re going to be taking up at least one fully paid member of staff’s time.

Another hot topic on the graduate employment agenda at the moment is the ‘no work experience = no job’ issue – most graduates are extremely grateful for any chance of work experience and training, whether it’s paid or unpaid.

The solution.

It’s a tricky one. Obviously major firms making mega profits can afford to pay their interns and should just buck up and pay at least minimum wage, end of story. And luckily public opinion and bad press seems to be swaying them in that direction, which is great.

However for small and medium sized firms more thought needs to be given. The question is how to make sure everyone has equal access to opportunities no matter their situation, while at the same time making sure all firms interested in providing these opportunities can.

This could be an area where the state should get involved. There are actually already a number incentives where by the state will pay firms to take on paid interns but these tend to be complicated, dependent on a lot of criteria and very area specific. Perhaps a more centralised, uniform and highly publicised scheme could be the answer?

It’s an interesting debate and I’d love to get your opinion –

  • Am I missing an important issue in this debate?
  • Is saying ‘the state should pay’ overly simplistic? How would it work?
  • Have you done an unpaid internships, or not been able to because of financial constraints?
  • Do you work for a firm considering cancelling an internship program because of this issue?

Any thoughts are welcome! Comment below or tweet us @GraduateRescue, if we get enough of a response I’ll do a follow up article.

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4 thoughts on “Unpaid Internships: The Debate

  1. Good post, it’s good to see people realising that banning unpaid internships is not the ‘only’ solution. It’s impact on SME’s and even startups has to be considered. I personally don’t think the ‘state should pay’ – because there are all sorts of complexities will will then get into and the PR is not necessarily always good.
    I didn’t do an unpaid principle because I couldn’t afford it and it was against my principle. I don’t think anyone should work free for any business which can afford to pay.

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