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Internships - How Do You Draw the Line Between Nurturing Talent and Exploiting It?

20/10/2014 17:22 BST | Updated 20/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Earlier this month, Casa Morada the creative decor company was reported to HMRC after advertising six full time roles that would in return offer nothing - other than 'experience'. Unsurprisingly the news attracted unwanted press and criticism from the public.

While offering up to two weeks of unpaid work experience is considered acceptable, the practice of hiring unpaid interns for much longer periods of time remains widespread. The creative industries in particular suffer a bad reputation when it comes to working youths for long hours and no money. They are often criticised for forming barriers for young people wanting to get onto the career ladder. Sadly today, many expect to count a period of low or non-paid employment as their first step onto it.

With Ed Miliband pledging to boost the minimum wage as part of Labour's election manifesto, many businesses are now keener than ever to hang onto prolonged unpaid work experience youths where they can.

There are good economic reasons as to why paying workers more is important for the economy... or in the case of those on work experience, at all. Any rise in wages is good news for the local economies who will reap the benefits of a boost in workers' spending power.

But for creative companies - whether they operate within media, marketing, décor or design, there presents an equally valid case for actually paying those on work experience.

Promoting prolonged unpaid internships automatically diminishes the pool of creative talent available. By expecting young employees to work for free or to at best merely cover their travel expenses, you're automatically limiting the attraction of a position to those who can afford to work for nothing, in most cases because they can rely on parental support.

Then there is the question over what companies are asking their bright young things to do in the workplace. So many employers view unpaid interns as hired help to support on menial tasks, especially given that economic instability has forced many businesses to make full time staff cutbacks, which often sees those at the lower end of the pay scale squeezed out first. Being resigned to the photocopying room can dampen the enthusiasm of even the most keen of first jobbers and cause them to quickly question their chosen career path.

At the other end of the scale, training interns up so that they can become involved in more meaty project sounds great in principle, but the problem here is that as soon as those interns have learned a new skills set, they'll be up and looking to offer them to a company that might actually pay them for their efforts. The drain on management resource as interns train up and then leave can end up leaving companies with a whole new financial headache to deal with.

So what is the answer? Apprenticeship schemes can be a much more rewarding option all round. London Mayor Boris Johnson is a vocal advocate of apprenticeships, having set a target for the creation of 250,000 in the capital by the end of the 2016 academic year. The apprenticeship route means that businesses could not only bring in young, bright, enthusiastic talent, but nurture it and help that talent to grow into something that would benefit both those on the scheme, and business in the longer term, whilst giving apprenticeships an additional financial incentive to see the training period through. Sometimes, you have to speculate to accumulate.

Hard work should be rewarded with fair pay. While a debate may be rumbling on between government and UK businesses about what constitutes fair pay when it comes to setting the bar for the minimum wage, there is still much that we can do as individual companies to encourage and nurture young talent, both for our gain and for theirs. Let's not kill creative talent before it's had a chance to flourish.