The topic of unpaid internships has caused a media explosion this year. Last week, HMRC announced its intention to target 200 employers who have recently advertised for unpaid interns. Despite popular opinion, I struggle to understand why these companies are coming under fire.
Employers shouldn’t be expected to pay for interns who bring no value to their business. Many companies are doing interns a favour, not the other way around. We don’t live in a society where we can pat ourselves on the back for simply having a degree. It’s not enough: organisations want skilled workers in today’s job market.
I’m not saying that all graduates should be forced into free labour after university. Those who have used their time wisely whilst studying definitely shouldn’t be doing unpaid work. But there’s a huge distinction between those who have taken advantage of the opportunities university offers and those who haven’t.
I graduated with a 2:1, had freelanced throughout my three years, and was involved with a plethora of extra-curriculars. In the great British tradition, I also went out drinking regularly. A friend of mine worked a part-time job during term and spent summers doing work experience. Throughout, she maintained a (sometimes too healthy) social life. Now she’s doing a paid traineeship at the European Union.
Another friend graduated with a First and spent a year abroad during her degree. At one point she boasted four different kinds of employment at once while we were studying. She was an editor of the student newspaper and a weekly character at the uni club night. As a graduate, she has continued: she works hard, enjoys life and still achieves.
Yet many students stumble through three years at university, developing little else than active social lives. They show up to a few lectures, pull all-nighters to get their essays in on time, spend every weekend at clubs or house parties wearing a Pikachu onesie.
In the real world, having maintained an exuberant lifestyle for the entirety of your degree won’t get you into a paid internship or graduate-level employment. Those who leave university unskilled and inexperienced need a foot in the door. This is where unpaid internships are useful.
And, before someone says it, this isn’t about privilege. This is not about the bank of mummy and daddy funding you to live in Kensington. Nor is it about sustaining an unpaid working life of popping down to Starbucks to buy coffee for the office every day for six months.
Some of the most motivated, proactive and hard-grafting people I know are from low-income backgrounds. I am too. Largely, they’re the ones who made the most of their time studying and have gone on to accomplish great things. Money – or lack thereof – is not an excuse to slack off.
This is an argument about making the life you want for yourself. That means solid work and taking advantage of opportunities. Any new graduate can balance an unpaid internship with paid work to sustain themselves, and that’s exactly what they should have to do.
The position of being underqualified when you graduate comes from an irresponsible attitude towards your time at university. Young people should have to face the consequences of missed opportunities.
Nothing comes from nothing, and that’s an important lesson to learn. Let’s reach the point where unpaid internships are obsolete because the pool of graduates is of such a high standard, they should all be paid. At the moment, that's simply not the case.