Unpaid Internships, Nick Clegg And 'Social Mobility'

12/05/2011 12:34 | Updated 22 May 2015

Nick CleggNick Clegg reminds me of a puppy wagging his tail in anticipation of a cuddle when he's just done a wee on the floor. Big enthusiasm! Trying to be good! Love you! (Just don't look at the puddle.)

It happened with student tuition fees. Progressive reform! Trying to be fair! Difficult decision! (Forget I signed a pledge to get rid of them.)

And now it's happening again with unpaid internships.

I don't think there were many unpaid internships around when I was 21. Maybe there were and I missed them. What generally happened was that you took on a very junior job - making tea, running errands, answering the phone - on a teensy-weensy wage and gradually found your feet.

My first job in magazines was as secretary to the fiction editor of Woman. I learnt a lot by

reading the contents of the filing cabinet.

But times have changed. We're in the middle of a recession, and there are fewer jobs around. It gets worse. If you're a young person wanting to get into the swankier trades or professions - law, accountancy, politics, PR or the media - you won't get taken on unless you have experience.

This means you're expected to work as an intern for three to six months for absolutely nothing. And you probably need to live in London, with parents rich enough to feed and clothe you, before you can even consider it.

As if that weren't bad enough, these unpaid internships are like gold dust. They're advertised by word of mouth. Unless you're insanely brilliant or ridiculously persistent, you'll never even get the chance to slog away as an unpaid skivvy.

Recently this clever scheme to get young people to work for nothing has been criticised by campaigners like InternAware. The argument is that if you're working set hours and doing specific tasks for a company that makes a profit, you should be paid the minimum wage. (Work experience for a couple of weeks is different, as you're getting a feel for the workplace rather than doing a job.)

On Tuesday morning, Nick Clegg launched the Coalition's new drive for social mobility. As part of this, he called for an end to unpaid internships.

He's wagging his tail. His enthusiasm is infectious. And I agree, I really do, that expecting young people to work for nothing is a national scandal.

But here's the great big puddle. First, we have, as usual, a big dollop of hypocrisy. Some of the biggest users of unpaid internships, both now and in the past, are politicians. Nick Clegg says he's setting out new rules for his own party. I'm just not sure why he waited until now, when he advertised for an unpaid intern less than two years ago. Or when he benefited from work experience from a Finnish bank after his dad, then a chairman of the United Trust Bank, 'had a word' with a friend.

Secondly, pinning a campaign for social mobility on to paying interns a living wage seems to me a bit like fiddling about with fondant icing when the cake is made with bad eggs. Has our Deputy Prime Minister not thought about the effect on social mobility of, for example, scrapping the EMA and raising university tuition fees? Of all the cuts in public services? Of redundancies and job losses?

Maybe I'm too cynical. But I think you could have solved the scandal of unpaid internships by taking a few companies to court. We do, after all, have laws about paying the minimum wage.

I suspect, rather sadly, that - whatever they say in public - our privileged politicians will carry on pushing open doors for their children while our own offspring are still scrabbling, rather desperately, for any kind of job.

And Nick Clegg looking like a lovable puppy won't make me feel any better about that.

What do you think?

Do you despair that your child will ever get paid work?

Paws for thought: More on internships


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