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)



7 responses

18 10 2011

The fact you have to write this long piece to convince both yourself and your readers contradicts your argument. Not to mention you are compromised. Of course, if you want someone to work for you for free you are going to present it in the way you do.

If people work for you, pay them. Very simple. Don’t present it as some step on a ladder to get a paying job. It is not that. If it is show me some hard data. Especially in a shrinking job market.

21 10 2011

Surely if you have to rely on unpaid members of staff your business is not financially viable. The line between charity and profit making has become blurred.

20 10 2011

If your client wont pay you enough to employ the staff that you require then you are just avoiding the inevitable. Your business is just plainly unviable.

27 10 2011
Alannah Bicheno

You don’t seem like an unpleasant person Rob, however I think you are underestimating the value and impact an intern can have to a company. Or are you?

If you:
– have a job that needs doing (as in, would be valuable to you as an employer and your company/would prevent any detrimental affects on your company, however minor),
– that also involves set responsibilities (since none of your other employees can/will do it, possibly due to issues with not having enough time and/or even having enough responsibilities of their own already)

Then the intern you require would count as a worker for your company, as you and your company would benefit from the work that they would do for you. As a result, they would legally require to be paid. Whether or not they benefit from building contacts or gaining skills etc is irrelevant.
If you cannot afford to pay someone to do the job, then your business is not viable. Either lower your paycheck, or up your prices to cover the cost. Do not try to convince people that dressing up a real job as work experience for young people is anything other then exploitation.

I would also like to point out that I have viewed the internship your company is offering on your website, where you claim to require someone who is IDM certified and that you will consider anyone with a qualification in online marketing or digital communications.
So not someone who is so inexperienced that they are not worth paying?
Someone who actually has had an education and possibly a previous job in your market area. Sounds like someone who is qualified to be an employee, not someone who needs training and would cost your company money in hidden costs and supervision.

Just to back up my point with some evidence:

On that note, where is your evidence for any of the claims you have made?

14 12 2011

I do understand, and agree with to some degree, your rationale behind internships. However, my biggest criticism is that it is often only individuals from wealthier middle class families that can afford to self-sustain themselves through such a period of unpaid work. Those from lower socio-economic communities often cannot afford not to earn anything, nor can rely on the parents or the state in most cases.

4 01 2012

I am a young person who is looking to gain experience in the field I want to continue my career in. I live in London and to put it bluntly, have no money.

Luckily for me, I can get work easily in the areas I want. Unluckily for me, I don’t get paid. Luckily for me, I get great experience and I don’t just make the tea; it’s a real job! Unluckily for me, the company can’t/won’t offer a permanent or paid position.

Where’s the line? Look at it form my perspective.

Throughout my life I have worked hard. I am continually reflecting on my practice on how to improve and become more employable. I am realistic and agree that young people should take part in some hard graft when entering the real world of adulthood, but don’t let this confuse the basis of your argument that you have outlined here. Your piece is contradictory in many ways. For example, interns require more management and supervision because they are not masters of the profession. Well, yes, they won’t be masters, you can’t hold that against them, but research has found the more you invest (through whatever means, whether pay or training) the more likely the person will become committed to the employer and engaged with the work. This is with a perspective in the long-term, which to me should be a central focus for all businesses, and not just a focus on the short-term solutions and gains.

Interesting that someone mentioned the internship you posted has a higher skill requirement that would suggest they would need to be paid. If you can’t afford to pay them, you need to do some seriously business planning and thinking about reorganising your workforce.

Also, I’m not sure where you got the idea that young people want to be journalists. I know plenty of engineers, scientists and those going into technology.

I could go on but must get on with applying for unpaid work. Thanks for the thought-provoking piece.

11 06 2013

I think you may find many would be interns would jump at the opportunity to do work experience and further their skills for ‘free’ in a large business/corporation because of the tough job market and pressure to have both an academic qualification AND worlds of experience. Unfortunately, many are facing the same economic climate as businesses and cannot afford to work for free.

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