THE BLOG

Unpaid Internships: Are We Undervaluing Our Interns?

30/08/2013 12:46 BST | Updated 28/10/2013 09:12 GMT

'You can't get work experience without previous experience, and you can't get experience without previous work experience': the inevitable catch 22 that prospective graduates and job-seekers are growing far too familiar with. With graduates growing increasingly concerned for their employability, more and more are opting for unpaid internships.

There is no such thing as a free lunch, especially when companies do not stretch to cover travel and/or lunch expenses for their interns. Why should free labour be any different? Upon asking a number of soon-to-be graduates about their unpaid and paid internship experience, the result whether they were worthwhile was varied. With graduates being constantly blasted with the news that in this current climate we cannot afford to be picky or choosy with our careers, a number of graduates I spoke to expressed concerns over the impracticality of unpaid internships, especially if they were expected to relocate for the role. Unpaid internships provide an unfair and unequal advantage for those who can afford to work for free, ultimately leaving a number of potential interns unable to foot the bill to slip through the net.

Trades Union Congress published on 22nd March 2013, research suggesting that almost four in five (78 per cent) 18-34 year olds could not afford to live in London away from home to become an unpaid intern. If graduates are looking for internships in the Media sector, a number of the desired Newspapers, Magazines, Television and film companies are located in London. Living within commutable distance from London is ideal, but still expensive, especially if companies do not offer reimbursement for internships that can last in excess of three months.

Some interns are left with no choice other than to work part time to sub their accommodation fees, but with internships often running from 9-5, or 10-6, there are not enough hours in the day to gain intern experience and complete paid work experience simultaneously.

Salaries and payment do not value who we are as people, but they do value what we are worth in the context of the commercial, working world. Interning for free may be financially viable for some, providing interns with experience they may not receive elsewhere, but where do we draw the line between working for free and gauging how much you should be paid when it comes to finding future paid work? Unpaid internships for the majority may just be a temporary measure, but for some it can be a difficult cycle almost impossible to break out of. Some graduates stated that their background of unpaid internships made it difficult for them to express what their expected salary should be when they did eventually move on to find paid work. They urged that aiming for paid internships is all well and good, but in the current climate, work is work, and there has to be a time where you have to be realistic if you want to find work experience as opposed to turning down all unpaid work.

But for many, being realistic means that they simply cannot afford to undergo unpaid internships. NUS Vice-President Susan Nash stated here that the experience gained by interns is "often invaluable to them but by not paying them employers are restricting these opportunities to a wealthy few." 64% of the Graduates I spoke to said internships should either be paid, or should offer pecuniary reimbursement for travel or those needing temporary accommodation to complete the placement. The other 36% said they were unsure: no one said internships should be unpaid.

The absence of financial support in internships does not just stop at the money, with many interns crying out for a little bit more responsibility to encourage flourishing while on placement. One intern claimed that the lack of responsibility made them feel like 'the company didn't trust them', and when I asked what they would change about their internship, the unanimous decision was to be given more to do. "If you're living out of yours or your parents' pocket to enable you to do the internship, the least you can expect is to gain some useful work experience" one intern stated. And yet, another problem arises from this ask. Unpaid internships could breach employment law if what Internaware.org classifies "people who work set hours, do set tasks and contribute value to an organisation are "workers" and are entitled to the minimum wage." Interns cannot be given more responsibility without employers being legally bound to pay them. Spotting a niche in the magazine market, Intern magazine operates with the intention to "empower interns through both facets of the publication," by enabling interns to write about their experiences while initiating a long overdue, "frank debate about the current state of the intern culture and its potential implications in both the short and long term for the creative industries."

For some interns, their unpaid days are only temporary, and are all about timing, as one aspiring PR & Marketing intern states 'I'm doing it because in the long run it'll pay off, even if it isn't right now.'

Successful interns may be on the path to gaining useful work experience, but sadly experience won't pay the accommodation fee.