05/11/2014

By Michael Barrington-Hibbert, Barrington Hibbert Associates.

Do internships actually benefit the individual? How many internships actually lead to full time employment and is the internship playing field a level one?

Today, internships are increasingly the route to obtaining that dream job and almost deemed a modern day prerequisite for a successful career. A recent study by High Fliers Research, ‘The Graduate Market in 2014’, which looks at graduate vacancies at organisations featured in The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers, stated that a record 37% of entry-level positions are expected to be filled by graduates who have already worked for the organisations, either through internships or industrial placements.

Taking these facts into consideration, it’s easy to see the importance attached to internships, but open any newspaper and you’ll read differing schools of thought on the benefits they offer young people. The furore caused by the increase in the number of unpaid internships on the job market has been impossible to avoid with many viewing internships as an exploitation of young people. Additionally, there is a raging debate associated with the growing role of inherited advantage, where affluent families use their established networks to give their children a ‘leg-up’ over their less connected piers. Even Nick Clegg joined the debate, as part of his drive to boost levels of social mobility he warned that children of senior executives should not be allowed to use their privileged position to secure internships at top companies.

I’m a firm advocate for any mechanism that provides a pathway of opportunities into employment for young people and I’ve actually integrated this culture into my own business. By forming a relationship with The Brokerage, a charity which provides employers with the advice and the means to engage with local communities and access local talent, I have found two young graduates who are now an integral part of my organisation.
However, I can’t help but think that there are a myriad of aspects that I am not comfortable with around the concept of unpaid work. Are young people being exploited by unpaid internships? For glamourous or highly sought after opportunities the equation is quite simple, in a world of supply and demand where the number of applicants far exceeds the number of vacancies available, the employer can choose highly talented young people without the need to offer remuneration. I’ve seen it far too often where young people have had these internship opportunities at large organisations and invariably they lead to nothing. Now, I appreciate that the economic climate was particularly challenging over the past seven years, but when you look at the number of people undertaking unpaid internships and then compare this with those that gain full-time employment, the numbers simply don’t stack up.

And it’s not only large faceless corporations or struggling SMEs who are using unpaid interns as a means to tap into free labour, I remember reading not too long ago about an MP who employed unpaid interns, so this is something that affects all industries and demographics. The question is, although not illegal, are unpaid internships ethically correct? In my view the answer is no – a fair day’s work should equate to a fair day’s pay and I believe it’s time for organisations to look at remuneration, otherwise inherited advantage will continue to prevail. Put simply, what students can actually afford to take up these opportunities?

Let’s say you have two graduates of similar age and ability, however one has had the opportunity to embark on unpaid internships with businesses that could potentially advance their career. This same graduate has parents that are ready to subsidise their accommodation and also has a network of family and professional contacts that can help them. Ten years later, chances are that this graduate will have a higher paying job than the other, be married to another professional and be living in a neighbourhood with other professionals, thus continuing the cycle with their own children. On the other side of the coin the other student, equally academically adept, only without the same support network misses out on job opportunities early in their career simply because they cannot afford to work for free. Surely this then places a substantial number of young people at a considerable disadvantage to their more privileged peers.

I recommend that organisations consider remuneration, that they widen the net and look further afield than their own exclusive networks and consider a broader base of applicants when looking at internships.