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Why We Can't Let the Internship Debate Disappear

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Maybe this morning you managed to find a chair for your commute, your patch of comfort in amongst the packed bodies. There is the familiar Monday morning feeling that permeates the whole carriage, but you can console yourself that everyone is in it together, earning money to further their dreams, ambitions and personal life.

Revisit that scene and look hard. You might have missed it; there are a couple of them in each carriage. The graduate working 9 till 5 without payment, maybe compensation for their train fare, maybe not. They will be carrying their own sandwiches and a sense of despair. This might be the beginning of a full-time six month placement or their fourth internship of the year; either way it wasn't part of the bargain.

Loaded with nearly £20,000 worth of debt and a lifetime of education, the realisation that you are expected to work full-time without payment can be pretty daunting.

But this is what faces many graduates or school leavers. Masquerading as internships, these abusive and quasi-illegal programs are supposed to give an opportunity to learn on the job and sometimes have the distant promise of a, can you imagine, paid position.

Rarely is this the case. These are not the internship or work experience programs of old; these interns are an essential part of the office and are freely told this, almost complimented on it.

Often they are covering other people's holidays or taking on a role that would once have been classed as entry-level. But now there are few entry-level jobs around, there are unpaid internships with lofty titles and a broken system. The statistics are skewed and misleading, unable to tackle the reality and always pushing a strong bias.

At the beginning of the year it looked like people had woken up. Media literate graduates, parents of media literate graduates, even the media. People were talking and complaining, no one liked the system or really believed in it. The success of websites such as Interns Anonymous pointed towards a transformation. Maybe it would change. And then an economic storm came and the problem of middle class graduates was easily forgotten.

But this is not a problem solely for middle class graduates; it travels through all, except possibly the highest, classes of society. Not all those sandwiches are filled with hummous or homemade falafel, some are delicious Branston and cheddar. Many of the affected are those who have grafted their way through university, only to stumble at the last hoop, unable to afford to move to London and work for half a year unpaid. There is an obvious elitism here, where only those with wealthy and supportive parents, living within Zone 6, can play the game of fake jobs.

Publishing, media, journalism, politics, advertising, design, marketing, PR, charity. All these professions are propagating the internship myth, excluding those without sufficient money or support, demeaning those with it.

What does this do for aspirations, for a culture where hard work and creativity is supposedly rewarded? What message does it send out to the next generation? Work hard, go to university, and you might manage to hold a job at Tesco to fund your unrewarded job in the Arts sector.

Funny how it seems to be the most liberal of companies, with an open-minded and welcoming ethos, who don't pay their interns; it doesn't exist in the financial sector. There is an argument that independent companies could not exist without this provision, but then it must be called volunteering, not interning.

Youth employment is back on the agenda again and, with it, the issue of interns should be being discussed. It is not a tenable position, and when another year of graduates flood the market it will reach an epidemic.

Do we encourage people to skip university, get an apprenticeship and learn a skill? Maybe not the worst advice. Or they can leave behind whatever ambitions they had and get the nearest job in a bank or insurance firm. There is an easier solution, people at companies in indulging in this practice could take a moment and decide whether they need these interns, and if they do then start paying them minimum wage. If they don't, well it doesn't matter how much you 'will learn on the job', you can't have them.

Around the Web

More than 800 unpaid interns hired at arts and sports groups in two years

The evolving role of careers and employability professionals in HE

Higher education in 2012: leaders in the sector look ahead

Charities: either pay interns or give them training and opportunities