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The internal debate: why internships now add to the cost of education

Writing: Carlos Finlay

Illustration: Carlos Finlay

You need relevant work experience to find a good job. At some stage, or all too often, you or I have both grumbled at this seemingly unjust fact of life. To gain such experience, an internship seems like the best opportunity for many budding students in search of a career – what better way to get a true taste of the industry you may wish to enter post-graduation? But with this prospect comes one major drawback: internships are now seldom paid. Superficially, one month working in industry sounds fantastic, a brilliant opportunity to enter the working world as a curious guest, given the hands-on work of a professional. Onrec, an online think tank, affirms that 48% of young people aged 16-25 in the UK have enrolled on unpaid internships, aligning with further estimates that half of all student work placements across Europe do not provide financial recourse. Particularly in the fields of business and finance where the work of an intern can be as valuable as that of any other employee, the nature of an unpaid internship begins to turn exploitative.

However, such work experience now not only refuses to pay, but indirectly costs money. The average unpaid internship in London can set young people back over £1000 a month, and over £800 in Manchester, factoring in the expenditures of accommodation, food, and transport – it all adds up. Adjoin this onto the mounting cost of tuition fees, and we find internships leaving students with significantly less money than when they started. Certainly not all young people have the resources to work without pay; British employment rights declare that if an intern is classed as a worker, they are entitled to the National Minimum Wage. However, the notion of an internship itself – whether dubbed a placement, or simply work experience – has no individual legal status, allowing many firms to recognise interns as volunteers with no need for a salary. This wields the greatest damage on social mobility, where we find young people without a stable socioeconomic background struggling to follow through relevant work experience with no monetary reward.

Most of all, unpaid placements become a deterrent to students of working-class upbringing, left without the means to support the same career experience as other, wealthier candidates. The government has expressed its intentions to crack down on loopholes allowing companies to take advantage of such labour. However, with the earliest bill tackling unpaid internships being voted on in 2019, it will be a while before we see any promising result. Therefore, when presented with the opportunity of an unpaid internship, should you take it? Certainly in doing so you are capitalising on a privilege that many cannot afford. Such a scenario rests on whether you think sacrifice can lead to success. A work placement is one of the best ways to apply your specialist knowledge to the working world, but with these opportunities becoming increasingly hard to find, it seems young people will do anything to get their foot in the door. This is the problem; relevant experience is so difficult to encounter, that industry professionals see it as an incentive not to pay. Work experience is in high demand and short supply, and firms will surely continue to exploit free – voluntary – labour. But at whose expense?

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