This article was published on the BBC website on Wednesday 25th November. It’s a cause of great concern for all of us here. We’re totally dumbfounded that any company would expect an intern to pay to get their experience.
Job-hunting university leavers are being warned against paying for services to help get them internships.
A university careers adviser says it is “rubbing salt in the wound” to ask students to pay to find internships for which they will not even be paid.
There are websites charging hundreds of pounds for letters of introduction for internships.
There are warnings the UK could follow the US example where wealthy parents can buy internships for their children. In a recent charity auction in the UK, work experience in the media was offered alongside a range of showbusiness prizes.
Alex Try, author of the blog Interns Anonymous, says an industry seems to be growing up around internships – and that a “climate of fear” can stop graduates from talking openly about their experiences. The director of the National Council for Work Experience, Heather Collier, says there is “definitely a problem that needs sorting out” about internships – particularly over when they should really be paid at least the minimum wage.
Students facing a tough jobs market are increasingly worrying not just about getting good degree grades, but also gaining the right work experience. And there are concerns that instead of opening doors, these stretches of unpaid work could become commodities acquired by more affluent students, enabling them to access the most sought-after jobs.
The director of Oxford University’s career service, Jonathan Black, says there has been a growth in companies trying to make money from internships. They are playing on “fear, uncertainty and doubt”, he says. Mr Black says careers services have been trying to rebuff attempts to sell services to students when careers advisers can arrange internships for them without any charge.
These services can include charging hundreds of pounds for introductory letters – and Mr Black says he has heard of fees up to £1,000. In particular, Mr Black says it is unfair for vulnerable students who are worried about needing “an extra edge”.
And he warns that introducing a financial barrier to getting internships could have a “huge impact on diversity”: perpetuating the longstanding lack of social mobility in the UK. Targeting people wanting to get into industries such as investment banking and financial services, there are offers to write internship applications, re-write CVs, prepare answers and rehearse interviews – with fees of £100 to £250 for each stage of the process.
Katie Dallison, careers adviser at Goldsmiths, University of London, says careers offices are being “contacted frequently by these types of companies”.
“I think it’s hard enough that students have to work for free, often full time for months.
“Paying for this privilege is really just rubbing salt into the wound. However, realistically, it’s very competitive out there and many students will make large sacrifices to gain experience.”
A report into social mobility by former cabinet minister Alan Milburn highlighted internships as an obstacle for young people without social connections. The report argued that the networking skills of middle class parents helped them find internships for their children – and they can also afford to keep their children in unpaid work.
There are worries that even though young people might compete on a level playing field in the exam hall, the internship system creates another layer of privilege.
The government has sought to match job-hunters with internships that are available – with a free service called the Graduate Talent Pool.
But Heather Collier of the National Council for Work Experience questions whether some of the unpaid internships on offer might really be seen as jobs.
And on other jobs websites, a quick search for internships finds many requests for full-time, well-qualified staff, who would be expected to work for several months without pay.
A spokesperson for the Business, Innovation and Skills department said: “The government is committed to offering real help to graduates during these difficult economic times and internships are great way for them to get real life work experience to kick start their careers.”
For those who are at the sharp end of internships, there can be mixed feelings.
Alex Try is one of the co-founders of the Interns Anonymous website – which he says was set up to share the experiences of individuals working in companies, sometimes for many months, without being paid. “It’s a really strange phenomenon – it’s almost an unspoken understanding that you’ll do unpaid work,” he says. Young people in this situation are made to feel like “expendable commodities”, he says.
Even though they are working without pay, he says interns are “scared to kick up a fuss… employers are in such a position of power”.
“Some internships are good and are passages to decent jobs, but most are unregulated and with no guarantees, based on the assumption that you can work for free and live in London,” he says.
“They are actually jobs – working nine to five, not shadowing anyone because no-one else is doing their jobs,” he says.
People contacting the blog have claimed that some recession-hit companies are cutting paid staff and replacing them with unpaid interns.
“It’s not all a rip-off – it’s what you can get out of it. But many people are being taken for a ride.
“After three months they’ll be replaced by another equally well-qualified, unpaid intern.”
And he says there are horror stories – such as an intern who travelled to a PR job in London from Slough every day at her own expense.
“They dangled the carrot of a job, but at the end of the seven months it disappeared,” he said.
Source: BBC News. Sean Coughlan, Education Reporter