Internships – To pay or not to pay?

e52a03b25ea8317187a1ea8c46b13ded_internNick Clegg announced today the creation of the ‘National Internship scheme’, which, amongst other things is aimed at ensuring that all interns are paid at least the minimum wage and in the words of the Deputy Prime Minister would mean that one would not get an internship based on ‘who your father’s friend’s are.’ In addition, government will now encourage (note, not insist through concrete legislation) National Minimum Wage legislation to be taken more seriously and encourage the ‘whistle to be blown’ on unpaid internships. The full article can be viewed here: http://bit.ly/hu3pHn.

About time too. Particularly for the sake of young university graduates.

It is widely documented that this group are having it tough in terms of employment opportunities, indeed with more and more graduating with degrees, there appears to be fewer and fewer graduate based vacancies to go with them. Many are therefore turning to internships to a.) keep our idle student based hands busy, b.) to actually do some worthwhile work for a charity (if indeed the internship is with a charity) and c.) to get some vital experience which will help us (we hope so anyway) get that edge in the ever more fiercely competitive jobs market.

At present, the vast majority of internships are voluntary and/or unpaid. This is a simple matter of fact. Yet it matters enormously in that it particularly affects poorer students who have gained as good a degree as their more well of counterparts yet for purely economic reasons cannot afford or are discouraged from taking up internships. This reality is supported by research from the IPPR who have studied this issue extensively (you can see the report here:http://bit.ly/gptnTd).

I believe this is fundamentally unfair. Grounded research has told us for years that those from poorer backgrounds tend to lose out in terms of educational outcomes in comparison to their more well of counterparts. So when despite this, poorer students do well at school, go to university and get that good degree, to be disadvantaged further in this way just seems wrong. This has led social research organisations such as the IPPR to call for all internships to be paid at least the minimum wage. And why shouldn’t they be? The employer (most of the time anyway) gets someone who is keen and interested in their subject area and who through their degree have useful and valuable skills. As the situation is at present, the IPPR argues that because of the way internships are currently structured, the richest or those with the means to raise sufficient funds tend to disproportionately fill these internships, and then go onto to get the lucrative and/or more desirable jobs as a result. Indeed, when you consider the work an intern can do within a company, government body or charity, it in many instances is not the photocopying and tea making malarkey that some may associate with the term ‘internship’, but work which contributes greatly to the organisation in question. On this basis, why shouldn’t interns be paid something? Why suddenly, is it considered a novelty to pay someone for their labour? This is why I support the announcement made today.

Sure, industry will say that in these straightened times, paying for interns is simply unaffordable. Yet the IPPR report suggests otherwise (see page 13 for example). Firstly, it ignores the argument that paying interns might actually make economic sense, it may boost productivity and may due to the increased certainty for income (particularly for those who are poorer) boost morale and increase the probability of the intern completing their internship.

And secondly, particularly for larger private companies and government bodies paying interns the minimum wage would absorb a tiny proportion of their turnover/profit/costs so asking them to do this would in all honesty represent no massive financial hardship. In saying all this, I am sympathetic to smaller charities who might find it challenging to implement such measures, yet as the IPPR points out, charities can be upfront with funders about the compelling social, moral and economic case for paying interns (as raised here and in the IPPR research).It is for all these reasons that the announcement today is a welcome one. Yet if Clegg and co can be commended for raising this issue publicly and committing to do something about it, then allow me to be weary in that from what the Lib Dem leader has said today, it seems the government is taking the self regulatory rather than enforcement approach. This I fear could mean that although change might occur in government departments, a few companies and some charities, many will still continue to offer unpaid internships. It would have been even nicer if the government had been braver and began the process of legislating for the eradication of these positions. So in short, the government can be applauded for intention, but as to whether current plans will make any noticeable difference, ‘the proof will be in the pudding.’

 

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