Unpaid Internships—A Necessary Evil?

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During my time at university the benefits of undertaking an internship have been widely publicised: a great way of gaining experience in the sector you want to work in, improved job opportunities later in life etc. But this all comes at a price if the internship is unpaid. Unfortunately this is a common occurrence. According to an article published in The Guardian, nearly a quarter of all internships are either unpaid or pay less than the National Minimum Wage (which is illegal). These interns are essentially volunteers, but not in the usual sense of the word. Think of a volunteer working for a charity and you might conjure up an image of a selfless person, generously giving up their time to make the world a better place. With an unpaid internship the roles are reversed. The company has generously given you permission to work for free within their offices. But the core of the problem is this: unpaid interns are providing valuable work, valuable skills and valuable ideas to a company that is not prepared to reward this, or even acknowledge it.

So why do we do it? Because at the end of the day it seems they are a necessary evil. We need the skills we are gaining from the internship to add to our CV to enable us to progress to a paid job in the future. Well, that’s the theory. In many cases people move from unpaid internship to unpaid internship. How people can afford this is a mystery to me.

It seems that all the blame for unpaid internships is being fobbed off onto the companies that offer them. Is this really fair? Companies exist to make a profit and recruiting someone who is willing to work for free is just another way of cutting down on costs.

In my opinion the blame lies with two bodies; the government and universities.

The government should have a crackdown on this kind of behaviour; why are there so few rules protecting interns? People who undertake internships are often of an age to fly the nest, but find they cannot as they have to take unpaid placements. I don’t claim to be an economic genius but surely allowing young people economic freedom would help boost the economy? Not to mention the extra revenue from National Insurance and Tax.

Now to the universities. An education is rather an expensive business these days and finding, once finishing university and being in a huge amount of debt, that you are not even able to get a paid internship must be a blow. The whole point of a university degree these days is to allow you to progress to a better job quickly. It would therefore seem natural to assume that universities are also providing opportunities to acquire the necessary skills and experience to get that job. It would appear that not all of them do. And maybe this should be the new focus of degrees. This brings into question whether university degrees are still worthwhile and whether, good old fashioned vocational training is a better (and more financially viable) option.

Now, I know from experience that not all universities are bad at this. I am a current University of Essex student and the emphasis the University places upon employability is enormous. There are numerous schemes, help and advice available to students. It was actually through the ‘Essex Interns Programme’, who only advertise paid placements, that I found my internship working for Spark and Mettle.


Written by Alex Ashton-Cobb

Illustration by Marsmettnn Tallahassee