The user guide to the Labour Force Survey, a quarterly sample of UK households providing information on the labour market, reveals a set of broad economic activity categories into which I'm not sure I fit as an unpaid intern. The only option besides 'in employment' and 'unemployed' is 'economically inactive', which seems misleading given that I am contributing labour on a daily basis. The net loss in this equation is not to our economy, but to my pocket.
The problems faced by unpaid interns seeking to enter industries ranging from law to government, publishing to finance, were not discussed at the autumn launch of the UK's Skills Commission's new report, Technicians and Progress, which added another voice to the clamour for skilled young people in the advanced manufacturing and engineering industries. The Chair of the Skills Commissions Enquiry, Professor Alison Halstead, argued persuasively that those who wish to swap the academic bubble for hands-on training should be encouraged by a clear career path open to those as young as 14.
The message of the report was important and the development of technical skills deserves better support and status, but the wave of attention that skills-based learning has received indicates a popular backlash against a market flooded with graduates who lack experience. It points to the inference made by the range of programmes which have dominated the response to the unemployment crisis: young people cannot find work because they are lacking, and a focus on practical training is the answer.
The British government's latest nod to this came with its announcement of the creation of work academies to offer training and work experience to unemployed young people in sectors such as hospitality, construction and retail, in response to figures showing that youth unemployment has passed the one million mark by announcing the creation of. With the blueprint provided by the Wolf Review for the expansion of vocational education adding up to little more than the much reiterated slogan of "360,000 apprenticeships this year", the message of social mobility and aspiration which was at the heart of Labour's misguided aim to send 50% of young people to university is nowhere to be seen.
Question Time, 13 October, addressed unemployment with a debate over whether the nation's youth should be encouraged to emigrate around the globe to look for work. The response was disheartening to those who lack the funds to move abroad and the resources to find jobs in other countries, but the harsh rhetoric which plays on the inadequacies of young people has at least not yet become as explicit as it was in the words of US Presidential candidate Herman Cain, who argued "if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself".
Yet within the UK, the same rhetoric of graduate inadequacy is being used to legitimise the treatment meted out by employers in failing to pay their interns. Cabinet Minister Jeremy Hunt's office was recently revealed to have justified its use of unpaid interns in a letter to director of Graduate Fog, Tanya de Grunwald, by emphasising the 'guidance and training' provided. Nothing of the sort had been mentioned in the job advert, which instead emphasised the right candidate's 'willingness to complete work quickly and to a high standard' and 'outstanding written skills'.
"Interns are getting a free education", argued The Economist in September, pointing out that companies are so busy that interns will "probably...be given some tasks that actually matter". Though we are talking not about opportunities to try out an industry for a few weeks but stints of three months and more, the contribution of interns to a company's profit is oddly made to serve as justification for their lack of pay. Whilst it is true that fair internships provide necessary opportunities for gaining experience, the real question is whether most offer so much more than they reap from interns in return that paying minimum wage would be too generous.
My experience has shown me that employers ranging from MPs to advertising companies which paid friends who graduated in previous years for work lasting three months, now offer no more than expenses. Companies which used to offer expenses now consider it your privilege to work for them, suggesting that the work was once considered worth paying for, or at least supporting. The shift has occurred just as employers have increasingly begun to rely on a steady stream of unpaid labour as part of their employment infrastructure. After two weeks at a previous placement I informed my supervisors that I would have to leave for a position paying better expenses. They were understanding but concerned that this would leave their paid researcher with too much work, and I was asked whether I had any friends wanting some (unpaid) experience, to provide support for a few weeks. Just this morning, my twitter feed revealed a journalist asking if anyone knew of someone 'free' to do some work experience the following week; they'd been caught short of staff.
By casting payment for work as an unaffordable luxury, the emphasis on skills building and increasing employability at any cost has done a disservice to thousands of graduates who cannot afford to pay the price, and are foregoing opportunities to reach for the first rung of the ladder in white collar industries. The attempt to deal with graduates lacking skills must not be allowed to sideline those from less advantaged backgrounds who simply lack experience, who aspire to better pay and higher social status than their parents, and will need to start with an internship.
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