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The Work Foundation

Rise of the intern sparks intense 'free work' debate

Authors: The Work Foundation Stephen Overell

13 December 2010


The problem with unpaid internships, says the Social Market Foundation in a new pamphlet, is not the principle of 'free work' per se, but how to broaden access to people from less well-off and less well-connected backgrounds. The public policy issues are therefore the quality of internships themselves (a kitemark system is proposed) and attempting to level the playing field (through properly advertising vacancies, objective interviews and bursary schemes).The paper contains some polling evidence. Graduates appear to accept that internships are part of the transitional furniture between education and the world of work. Some 57% of young people from lower socioeconomic groups would not be deterred from entering a profession of their choice by having to work unpaid (for an unspecified period of time). The belief that unpaid work is necessary to enter the creative industries is higher among less skilled families than more skilled ones. It’s seen as an investment in a career believed to be stimulating and fulfilling.

Without qualifications systems or recognised careers structures, it may be that loose, ultra-flexible 'learning-by-doing' type interactions are particularly useful in the creative industries: graduates can thereby internalise the behaviour that tends to be more highly prized than mere skills, and employers can try people out in realistic settings. However, the culture of this sector is such that bureaucratic interventions such as codes of practice tend to cause eyes to glaze over. Passion is the stuff that matters. More to the point, you wonder whether the data shows young people simply being pragmatic about an injustice they feel powerless to change.

In the chapter I contributed to the pamphlet I argue that another route to dragging internships out of the informal economy of patronage would be better enforcement. Most internships are more or less work – that is the point of them. They should therefore be paid at the very least the National Minimum Wage. If regulators enforced the law more energetically in the creative industries and in other allegedly influential jobs in parliamentary research and think tanks, unpaid internships would begin to wither and quality would be improved once perceptions of 'free work' were addressed.

That is not so far-fetched. The Coalition has asked the Low Pay Commission to examine internships in its 2011 report . But thinking this way – the IPPR’s Why Interns Need A Fair Wage is the best statement of it - almost seems to cast you as anti-creativity, a throwback to the time of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Even the Labour MP Gloria de Piero, who has suffered from the sector’s catty tongue on account of her Bradford accent during her stint as political correspondent of GMTV, told the launch event that the primary problem was too narrow an understanding of 'talent' rather than unpaid work being inherently exclusive. (By the way, her erstwhile boss at GMTV, Clive Jones, has talked of 'stamping out' unpaid internships.)

Personally, I think it is hard not to feel sympathy with the young. Saddled with a trebling of tuition fees as government scales back its investment in higher education and then the prospect of one or even several potentially unpaid internships to get into careers they perceive to be exciting, it would appear to be an unforgiving era in which to be a graduate.

Comments in Chronological Order (Total 1 Comments)

Dan Peters

27 Oct 2011 6:50PM

Tend to agree. Although graduates might accept that internships are necessary, there's an obvious practical element to this as well. For all the talk in the SMF report about part-time jobs and "being creative with funding an internship", there are situations where a graduate simply can't afford to carry out an internship.

Your average part-time job doesn't cover relocation, accommodation and living costs in London. A select few "one in a million" types might go all out and find a way to do it, but that hardly disproves the point. Social mobility problems are rarely caused by insurmountable barriers holding the lower classes back: it's small-scale discrimination that has the largest effect.