Counterpoint: In defence of the unpaid internship

Andrew Scherer attempts to see the good in a dubious practice

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The Independent Online

When I left university I took part in an unpaid internship. No, I did not feel exploited. Nor did I consider the company I worked at to have taken advantage of me. In fact, I was (and still am) grateful for the fantastic opportunity I was given to gain experience and learn about an industry I was considering pursuing a career in.

My internship was well structured with a clear programme explaining what it entailed. Furthermore it gave me ample chance to shadow those further along in their careers and receive advice that has since proved invaluable. With no previous experience in marketing, this placement undoubtedly provided me with the much needed springboard to secure a job in this sector, a position I would otherwise have been unlikely to get. Were the company required to pay me, a subject that has once again reared its head in Parliament, I simply would not have been offered the position. To expect a business to pay someone before they are able to make a proper contribution to their company strikes me as unfair.

This issue of pay constantly clouds the debate about the meaningful experiences afforded by internships; increasingly there is a default, blanket criticism of this approach to recruitment. As such, I think it is time for someone like me, who has benefited from such a placement to speak up in their defence. Not in defence of the many employers who seek to discredit internships by using them as a cloak to secure free labour (particularly those large corporations with the means to pay). Rather in defence of those good internships, both paid and unpaid, which seek to reward enthusiastic graduates with the experience and support they need to embark on their chosen career.

So why do I think internships are so heavily criticised? The truth is the anti-internship camp are doing a good job of highlighting those traits indicative of poorly run internships that seek to exploit not educate graduates. In today’s economic climate, with an increasing pool of graduate talent competing for every job, some companies have become brazen in what they ask and expect their interns to do. These companies are lazy in developing internship programmes, corrupting their intended purpose of providing a work experience placement for those at the start of their career, instead allowing them to become a means to ease the workload for existing staff without the costs associated in paying for new employees.

It is on this front that I believe the debate around unpaid placements should be conducted. When an internship fails to offer a proper learning experience for a graduate, it is not an internship, and the graduate should therefore receive proper payment for the work they are doing. My concern however, is that many in the anti-internship camp are failing to draw this distinction and are allowing the issue of payment to cloud the very real and important difference between a ‘good internship’ and those so-called work experience placements that attempt to pass themselves off as such a programme.

Even those internships for which graduates do receive payment offer no guarantee of a quality experience. In fact, companies often use a salary of national minimum wage for a period of between 6-12 months as an excuse to leave an intern carrying out predominantly menial tasks for the duration of their placement. This is arguably even more detrimental to graduates who desperately need relevant experience to find permanent work, not a long-term, low-paid temporary job.

There are clear benefits and values to a proper educational work experience programme, programmes that do not necessitate payment, and restricting these opportunities by allowing the debate to become confused would be very damaging for our already crowded graduate job pool. Of course, no intern should find themselves at a financial disadvantage whilst taking part in one of these schemes. The definition of a good internship must always see the intern fully compensated for any expenses incurred whilst taking part. Beyond this however, we should not be preventing people from taking up these opportunities, particularly when these placements are run by SMEs who would simply be unable to afford to pay those interns were it to become a legal requirement.

With Parliament once again almost debating the subject recently, the public debate on unpaid internships looks set to continue. The proposed bill offers many examples of short-sighted solutions to preventing bad internships. In particular, the outlawing of advertising for unpaid placements, which would clearly only return work experience to the domain of the well-connected and nepotistic. If Parliament really is serious about legislating for internships, I would suggest they should speak to the experts.

With more graduates than ever, and only four per cent of them securing places on the leading graduate recruitment schemes, we have to do more to promote the good internships. These internships should be meritocratic, utilising formalised processes to protect against the ‘not what you know, but who you know’ attitude that has a tendency to pervade our work experience culture. In addition they should be properly planned and managed. An intern should never be filling a position that was intended for a paid employee, nor should they float between menial tasks. When these criteria are met, and the intern receives the expenses they are due, our graduates should be free to take advantage of the opportunities to learn more about their chosen career path.

As a company, we join those criticising the ‘bad internships’. Our aim is to set a new standard for good internships and help more graduates bridge the gap between university and their dream first job. While many continue to berate internships on a blanket level, quite simply there are thousands of people in jobs as a result of ‘good internships’. Lets not let those who damage the name of internships shut down the fantastic opportunities afforded by these schemes when properly run.

Andrew Scherer is marketing and communications manager at Inspiring Interns