Entering the internship debate

internship debate blog

Internships: you might not get paid any actual MONEY for them, but, y’know, they’ll pay life dividends for the experience you get to put on your CV. Right?

4 out of 5 employers take on former interns, so you should do WHATEVER IT TAKES and find a way of landing an unpaid internship in the company of your dreams. Right?

And even if for-profit organisations could afford to pay interns, charities and other third sector organisations can’t, and anyway they rely on volunteers, always have done, and if they have volunteers who want to volunteer regularly, doing similar jobs at similar times on a daily basis, for nothing, and get a reference at the end of it and lots of experience along the way, for nothing, then that’s fine because it’s their choice, they are, in the truest sense, VOLUNTEERING to do this. Right?

Wrong, and wrong, and wrong. 

Let’s make it clear: getting first hand experience in an organisation is a vital step early along a career path. It is great for young people who are trying to determine where they want to go, what they want to do, who they want to be. That experience looks good on a CV, for sure, and it feels good too: you get to practise being in a work setting, you get to start to understand the culture and mores of working life in the career sector of your choice. And it’s good for the organisation too: fresh minds and willing hands are always a plus in any work environment.

So the intrinsic value of internships is not being called into question: they are great and wonderful things.

What is being called into question is the extrinsic, monetary value that is put on them. Put simply: unpaid internships are unfair.

Alan Milburn’s report, Unleashing Aspirations, gave a fascinating/damning critique of current internship practices in the UK. You can read the full report here. Some highlights are quoted below:

Undertaking an internship is an important access point for entry to a career in the professions –while undertaking one prior to university helps to secure a place at a top institution, undertaking an internship during or after university helps to secure entry to a profession. Yet, by and large, they operate as part of an informal economy in which securing an internship all too often depends on who you know and not on what you know.

Opportunities to undertake internships are not fairly distributed. You are less likely to be able to do an internship if:

• You lack the means to work for free (socio-economic factors)

• You lack the means to travel or live near to the internship (geographic factors)

• You come from a background in which a professional internship is never considered or discussed (information factors).

The report goes on to recommend ways to improve the quality of work internship programmes and to provide funding so that all young people are given an equal opportunity to gain first-hand experience. It talks about establishing a code of practice, getting banks to finance unpaid internships, looking at loan opportunities, etc.

This is all well and good. Recommendations have been made, systems are (supposedly) being put in place to make internships more equal (both in terms of access and in terms of quality of experience). But what about right now? What should young people do? And organisations too?

We’re not the experts, let’s make that clear. But our thoughts are these:

  1. If you are looking for internships and work placements and you can afford to work for free: by all means take the opportunity. But leave a legacy too. Don’t just take what you can from it. Ask if you can run a project of your own: use your time in the organisation to help them develop a supermegaawesome internship programme that can be accessed equally by all. Research funding routes so that they could pay (or find ways of having interns be paid). Look at information from the National Council for Work Experience to help your organisation plan a great internship structure and recruitment procedure. And check out Internaware for other tips and ways to promote fairer access. Ultimately, the fairest thing would be to have all internships paid equally, and recruitment processes weighted fairly so that there is equal opportunity across the board. But that’s not coming any time soon. This is our stop-gap, band-aid measure, until that moment comes along.
  2. If you are looking for internships and work placements and you can’t afford to work for free: don’t despair. It is tough, they are not plentiful, but there are a number of progressive, enlightened companies and organisations who want you. And will pay. You just need to know where to look. If you’re in London, check out Internocracy. The National Council for Work Experience could be useful too. (And our Star Track programme could maybe help you too).
  3. If you belong to an organisation that can’t afford to pay interns: there’s always a way. Not paying them is just lazy, and sometimes downright hypocritical. If you have relationships with profit-making businesses in your community, see if they can help fund a split work-placement, during which an intern can experience both organisations (and be paid). Register your organisation with Vodafone’s World of Difference, which pays volunteers who want to ‘donate’ their time to a charity for two months. Or do what LeftFootForward does, and fundraise specifically to pay for internships.
That’s our thinking. We’d love to know yours. Email us, or tell us on Twitter or Facebook what you reckon about what we reckon. Thanks.