Unpaid internships give thousands of graduates the opportunity to learn vital skills needed in the workplace, as well as offering them a way into highly competitive industries. However, not everyone can afford to work for free. With a lack of experience being one of the key barriers in securing employment, what happens to all those that cannot afford to take on unpaid work?
The True Cost of Unpaid Internships
The Sutton Trust found that unpaid internships can cost graduates as much as £929 a month in London and £788 a month in Manchester. With an estimated 21,000 unpaid interns working in the UK at any one time, it is no surprise that this has become such a hotly debated topic.
The issue is that many school leavers and graduates are left with a big problem; they need experience to get a job, but can’t get experience because they cannot afford to take unpaid internships. It is only those who can afford to essentially pay as much as £929 a month that will be able to take on these internships and gain a competitive advantage in the workplace.
The Importance of Internships
For many young people, internships are a way into their industry of choice. They are particularly important for those looking to get into very competitive industries such as law, politics, journalism, finance, fashion and the charity sector. High competition allows employers to offer unpaid internships since so many people are desperate to find a way in.
Many graduate employers also argue that even those who complete a university degree still lack basic work skills. With so much competition out there, employers simply cannot afford to pay graduates to learn these skills on the job. This is where unpaid internships come in.
“Banning unpaid internships would only reduce the number of opportunities available.”
Katy Hall, Deputy Director, CBI
While the CBI warned that banning unpaid internships altogether could have a detrimental effect on young workers due to reduced opportunities, it is worth considering the social impact this is having on young workers in the UK. It is true that internships offer young workers the opportunity to get a foot in the door in very competitive industries, but what about those that cannot afford these opportunities?
“…The cost of taking on an internship without pay is beyond the means of the vast majority of individuals.”
Dr. Lee Elliot Major, Director of Development and Policy, The Sutton Trust
A Proposed Solution
The trust did make some recommendations based upon its findings. They proposed that internships that lasted over a month should pay the national minimum wage at the very least, and preferably pay the National Living Wage.
They also suggested that the recruitment process needs to be more transparent, fairer and those hired should be taken on based on merit. The internships should be advertised to the public, rather than simply filling the position on an informal basis.
“Paying all interns who work for over a month the minimum wage would significantly improve access to these placements for those from more modest backgrounds, offering them a stepping stone into many coveted jobs, thus increasing social mobility.”
Dr. Lee Elliot Major
Will This Actually Help?
While I think it’s great that the trust has offered up a solution, will this actually help increase social mobility? It certainly helps improve access but is it enough? How will it affect opportunities for young people in the workplace?
Well, a YouGov polling of young business leaders concluded that these changes would not have a detrimental effect on internship opportunities. In fact, there appears to be a great deal of support for this policy idea.
I think it’s worth taking it a step further and ending unpaid internships altogether. They are not just bad for social mobility; they are also bad for business. By limiting valuable experience to those who can afford it, you lose out on talented individuals.
More importantly, unpaid internships are bad for society. The most competitive industries, and often the most important ones, end up being dominated by those from the same social background. In this day and age, you would expect employment opportunities to anyone with the right skills and talent, not just those who can afford it.