Debate: Are unpaid internships a good opportunity?

Illustration by Anita Cheung
Illustration by Anita Cheung

Many fretting third years will be undergoing the painful practice of applying for graduate schemes, internships and jobs. Increasingly, positions on offer are pay-free. This week Big Debate asks, are unpaid internships a good opportunity?








NO: Emily Dunlop

Having the safety blanket of student finance, I managed well. But what about post graduation, when the blanket is whipped from under my feet?

With graduation looming, I have come to accept that I’m not going to fall into my dream career quickly or easily. This does not surprise me. There are many industries and fantastic opportunities available in this big old world, so why should I have found my path yet? What has disappointed me though is the sheer number of unpaid internships being offered by well-established and successful organization aimed at people like met.

Firms post advertisements looking for suitable candidates, suitable meaning a first-class-degree-bearing skilled and experienced individual who is willing (begging) to take on the responsibilities of a fully-fledged employee. And what they can expect as compensation? What nice little salary awaits them in return for their hand graft? For the most part, expenses, and that is if they’re lucky.

Not so long ago, I was a proud member of the unpaid intern demographic. I worked in an agency run solely by interns, with the exception of the owner. I was given masses of responsibility, results were expected of me pretty much from the get go, and few opportunities were available to ask questions. Did this experience serve well? On experience alone, yes. Morally? Personally? Not by any means. Having the safety blanket of student finance and supportive parents, I managed well. I also was living in Berlin, a very reasonably priced city. But what about post-graduation,  when that blanket is whipped from under my feet? Jobs are scarce and expectations are high, particularly in Britain. This summer along you can expect to find UK students in the millions looking for internships with an estimated 800,000 – 1,000,000 of those internships being unpaid.

Working for free is mostly illegal and I have seen plenty of news stories where such cases causes uproar. The magic word ‘internship’ for some reason excuses this attitude. We can barely blame the companies themselves, when hosts of panting graduates are willing to do whatever it takes for nothing in return. What I don’t understand is how this trend of unpaid internships, with such high standards, has been able to transpire. For myself and many of you reading, this is what I am currently being faced with, and this is what is making me angry. Looking for work experience, only to find that for the most part all I will receive is pocket money for my train journey.

In a country scarred with class divisions, it seems clear to that unpaid work will only further damage the opportunities of the low-income population. The code-red danger word ‘UNPAID’ isn’t such a deal-breaker for those from wealthy backgrounds, but for someone who doesn’t have a parent’s bank balance to fall back on, is there even a choice?

And so the notion of unpaid internships is far from being a positive step on the career ladder. Companies 1, graduates and the unemployed, big fat ZERO. It is blatant exploitation, and exploitation that gives unfair advantage to those who can live without an income.


YES: Henry Wise

From personal experience, I have learnt that it can help you to decide what sort of occupation you want

Cat Reilly, who recently won a court case against the Department of Work and Pensions, was right to feel upset by being forced to work at Poundland for six weeks. She protested that being forced to work to prevent her from losing her Jobseekers’ Allowance broke the rules on labour. Being forced to work for nothing can be an assault on a person’s character as it is, but at Poundland? Bring me some valium please! Nonetheless there are issues with this case, and the positives of unpaid internships far outweigh cases like Reilly’s.

Firstly, unpaid work is a natural step on the road of finding a real job. With the exception of people who are disabled, we should be doing our best to find a job. That’s why ‘Workfare’ schemes are a good idea. The introduction of Workfare during the Clinton Presidency in 1996 cut the number of welfare recipients dramatically. In the first 10 years, welfare recipients dropped from 12.2 million to 4.5 million. 60% of mothers who left welfare found work, and caseloads declined by half.

On the subject of unpaid internships, I think it’s wonderful for people to get unpaid work experience. You learn many new skills and it increases your chance of getting work. From personal experience, I have learnt that it can help you to decide what sort of occupation you want. I spent a week working for the Daily Telegraph newspaper in London and thoroughly enjoyed it. I did proof-reading, research for articles and I even got to write a few articles which got published. It was intellectually stimulating and a welcoming atmosphere. I was not paid, but that did not bother me. I loved working  there and I just hope I end up working in journalism.

Jobs are not always fun. I also worked unpaid at a financial advisers’ firm. For two weeks I filed, copied and scanned files. The only thing I gained from the experience was a certainty that I never want to work in finance. Even so, we must start somewhere and must accept that opportunities will often be short of perfection. Ms Reilly says she wants the government to ‘do something which actually builds on young unemployed people’s skills.’ Of course that’s the government;s gob, but it’s not government who creates jobs, people do. Government can’t create Geology jobs (Reilly’s specialism), they can just try to make better conditions in which more Geology jobs might be created.

So what if companies only offer unpaid internships? Its wrong to say a person gains nothing from working unpaid. Internships are  about gaining a mentality and not about the pay; they increase a person’s confidence in getting a job. Interns can learn the ropes of the business or non-business world. And in the competitive world that we live in, it is fair that an inexperienced undergraduate like me is not paid the same as someone who has worked and can contribute further to the company than I can.

Yes, interns shouldn’t do any back-breaking work when there is no pay involved, but with regulations in place, I can’t see a downside. The next time you do work experience or an unpaid internship, remember, it’s never about the  money.


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