Why unpaid internship is not slave labour

17 10 2011

MY COMPANY is currently looking for an intern (don’t all apply at once). The reason is simple. We have a job that needs doing that we cannot get our clients to pay us for and, in the current climate, we cannot afford to pay an experienced person to do it. The work we want doing would involve supervision by a senior manager and would involve learning a set of skills that is very saleable in the labour market. Now, if we accept the argument that unpaid internships are wrong then this work will go undone, to the minor detriment of our business, and nobody will get that valuable experience. Who benefits from that?

There have been angry voices raised against internships recently from people who feel that they are badly treated and exploited. I am not going to defend every unpaid internship, as I am sure that there are bad employers of interns as well as good ones (welcome to the world of work). However, in principle, internship can play a useful role for some people in some circumstances. So what are the objectors saying and how should we assess internships?

Some people claim that internship is a form of slave labour, yet there is nothing compulsory about it. Young people make a rational choice to become interns. The calculation is that if you are prepared to invest some time and effort there may be a big pay-off further down the road, through access into highly competitive and popular trades or professions.

Internships don’t replace paid employment. The interns are too inexperienced to be worth paying in most cases. It is a kind of informal modern apprenticeship where it is recognised that most of the value in the relationship is gained by the apprentice rather than the master. One factor which actually deters businesses taking on more interns is that to be of any use they require time spent on showing them what to do and managing them, which amounts to a hidden cost.

Interns gain real benefits from creating contacts and getting experience that would probably not be open to them otherwise. The time invested by businesses on training them, however little it may be, is not necessarily repaid – once interns have some experience, they are more likely to get a job, and not necessarily in the place where they have interned.

Employers are able to gain assessments of young people before committing to taking them on, and vice versa, lessening the chances of mistaken commitments on both sides. Employers can assess the worth of individuals and interns can decide relatively informally whether the particular industry, business or boss is really for them.

A weakness of internships is that they are often restricted to those whose families have prior contacts in certain professions. If internships were formalised and legalised then there would be more opportunities for young people who may be currently excluded because they are outside the current networks of friends and families. A nationwide internship/apprenticeship scheme would be far preferable to young people going straight from school or college onto benefits.

Some of the criticism of internships has come through the widespread practice of using unpaid labour in the creative and media industries, especially in London. I am afraid that far more young people think they can pursue a glamorous career in fields like journalism than can ever be the case. In effect, the mass of wannabe media stars has created a situation where employers in these industries are inundated with talented youth who are willing to work for nothing. It would be helpful to the UK economy, as well as to the young people themselves, if more of them were prepared to learn skills in engineering, technology and science.

I also believe that there is a value to young people in having to accept that life can be a bit of a struggle. The years from 18 to, say, 24 should be a little tough. After all, most kids in our society have been sheltered until then from having to earn a living. If you are a student, that can carry on into your early twenties. There is a whiff of over-entitlement from some of those who complain about internships. I think it is a mistake, for the same reason, to enable young people to leave school and go straight onto the dole. It would be better for them to have no access to dole money until they reach 24.

Of course, with youth unemployment running at record highs, more jobs need to be created for young people – and for all of us, in fact. But this is a different argument involving investment and economic growth, not the use of internships.

(This article appeared in City AM http://www.cityam.com/forum/why-unpaid-internships-are-good-thing-they-help-the-young-get-foot-the-door)