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Internships: In Favour of the Students or Just the Rich?

Graduate Jobs Recruitment Internships Employability

Internships are a hot topic in the student recruitment market. With new laws passing on the advertisement of unpaid internships, the Graduate Recruitment Bureau delves deeper...

We all know that internships are undoubtedly beneficial. They boost your chances of employability and help develop your skillset to help you stand out of the desperate sea of jobseekers. But how justifiable is it that student interns are not getting paid for the work and services they are providing to companies? On 8th March, the House of Commons debated whether unpaid internships should be banned, so The Graduate Recruitment Bureau conducted a survey to investigate this on-going debate by asking students how they felt towards the matter.

We asked our students, "Considering the Minimum Wage in the UK and all work deserves to be financially rewarded do you agree that all work should be paid for no matter what?" 57.0% of students said they strongly agreed with this, and showed their utter outrage at what they see as "complete exploitation of students".

One student said, "Unpaid work is first hand exploitation of labour. Many companies take advantage of students; all internships should be paying at least minimum wage." Under the National Minimum Wage Act, workers are entitled to be paid at least the minimum wage, but what differentiates an intern from a worker? The National Minimum Wage Act in 1998 stated that interns were classed as volunteers, meaning they would be exempt from payment. If work exceeds shadowing, they would be entitled to the National Minimum Wage. However, interns nowadays are met with job targets, deadlines and producing work that is of use to the company, meaning interns are essentially fulfilling aspects of a paid worker. So does this mean interns should be paid? One student states, "If short term work experience is free, the business is unlikely to receive any net benefit, however anything longer than circa 3 weeks should mean the business is getting something out of the 'intern' which is of use to them, therefore the 'intern' should be paid."

According to survey results from Futuretrack, over a third of students would like to apply for unpaid work or internships, but cannot afford to. We asked our students, "Considering unpaid work has been a very successful route into many careers to what extent would you agree that this should continue?" 36.1% of students said they disagreed that unpaid work experience should continue, as it is a system that favours those who can afford to work for free, i.e. favouring the rich. One student told us that unpaid work is a "very unfair route into any career" as it is not accessible for those fortunate enough to have financial backing from family. This would hence mean that those in a less financially stable position are at a huge disadvantage, as it would inevitably restrict their chances of employability because of their lack of experience. One student told us how she was fortunate enough to have had her parents support her financially throughout her unpaid internship, but admitted it gave her an unfair advantage.

A large proportion of students also claimed that companies should at least cover travel expenses. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development also endorses travel expenses being covered for, particularly if an internship lasts for three months or more.

Although some felt that unpaid internships should be banned completely, 16.2% said they were unsure. One student commented saying "If unpaid internships are banned I worry about my chances of gaining any form of work experience easily as businesses may not offer this type of opportunity if they can't afford." However, some felt that that banning unpaid internships would be a loss for students: "If they're banned, less companies will offer internships at all as they company doesn't always benefit much from the intern. So there will just be less opportunities! Back to square one."

Students must remember that unpaid internships are leverage to opening up job opportunities and are what companies look for in their candidates. The creative fields of career choice, such as jobs in the media look for those with unpaid work experience. Around 60% of companies offer their interns jobs, making internships all the more worthwhile. A student told us, "I did a 3 month unpaid internship. 3 months later when a position opened up, I applied along with 50 others, and got the job!"

A student told us of how her unpaid internship was the best experience she could have had as it determined her choice of career: "I spent 2 weeks unpaid at a design office in London. I went in thinking I wanted to be a graphic designer but not being sure. But I came out 100% sure I wanted to go into interior design and architecture, and here I am studying interior architecture at Uni! I wasn't paid but I learnt so much and made connections that I still use today!"

Perhaps elitist, and a detriment to those with working class backgrounds, unpaid internship programmes are undoubtedly a financial strain. But internships are there to create opportunities. It is easy to get caught up in the tirade over the right to being paid, but students must remember that internship schemes are built to provide students with insights into the working world, to help focus career choices and primarily help you stand out and give you that edge. The students have spoken, and the financial stability divide that unpaid internship schemes encourage is a prominent problem. So is this something that employers and the government can consider and work on avoiding, or will this continue to be an issue?