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Are Unpaid Internships Becoming The New Norm?

26/05/2017 12:15
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In March the Olsen twins agreed to pay $530 each to 185 former unpaid interns with some claiming they worked up to 50 hours a week for DualStar Entertainment. This is one of a number of lawsuits against companies in the US over unpaid internships which allegedly break minimum wage laws and defy the US Fair Labor Standards Act which sets out conditions for unpaid internships, including the requirement that they offer educational value. Because this story involved Hollywood's favourite former child stars, it helped shine a light on the growth of internship culture and some of the dangers it holds.

Chance the Rapper also put out an advert for an intern on his twitter, despite recognising that '"intern" has a negative connotation'. This is another example of paid and unpaid internships rapidly becoming part of the normal path from education to employment. This isn't just happening in the US but here in the UK too. A few weeks ago at a politics careers event at my university, one of the speakers stated that he got to where he was through an unpaid internship. Though he had to struggle hard and work multiple jobs, he said that it was a necessary trade-off to have a stable position in later life. As if there wasn't enough pressure on young people to achieve educationally from a young age, it's now becoming normal for them to have to find multiple placements alongside studying. It's almost as if being young isn't fun anymore, as younger people find themselves on an increasingly longer road to employment.

Estimates suggest there are up to 70,000 internships across the UK every year, with the number consistently rising since the 2008 recession. A recent IPPR report on internships highlights a structural bottleneck in the graduate jobs market as the cause for this rise in internships - with an oversupply of graduates competing for good graduate jobs meaning that firms can recruit skilled workers on low pay or for unpaid placements. With 82% of these internships requiring at least a bachelor's degree, university qualifications are a must-have. The bottleneck is also creating a catch-22 for young people, where young people need experience to get a suitable internship, but also need an internship to gain this experience. And don't forget for young people this comes on top of rising tuition fees and an already challenging graduate job market.

Other than the wellbeing cost of unpaid internships to young people, the structure of internships mean they favour those who can afford to work for free, have personal or family contacts and already live in London or a major city - with over 85% of internships in the UK based in London. The IPPR report sheds light on the 'informal economy' where internship opportunities depend on personal contacts rather than a fair selection process. This barrier to entry for less privileged students is strengthened by low confidence in navigating recruitment practices and a lack of knowledge of how to find good placements.

Fair access to internships is important because half of top graduate recruiters claim that candidates without internships have little chance of a job offer for a graduate programme. The increase in the number of internships on offer from employers, and young people's willingness to undertake them, has led to a situation where recruiters can demand internship experience from entry-level employees. In this environment there is a strong argument that the government should regulate and institutionally protect internships and allow equal access to them. This means putting the rights of interns in law by banning unpaid internships and legally protecting the term 'internship' so that it only applies to paid training opportunities.

Universities also have a significant role to play in making internships fairer, and should build on the existing work many already do, providing internships and pointing students in the right direction. I am currently working at IPPR through the Amelia Zollner Internship programme which is designed by IPPR and UCL to complement my university schedule and learning. More universities need to engage in this type of programme, emphasising good employer practices and prioritising helping those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Together universities and employers could create a reciprocal relationship that facilitates more relevant educational programmes with significant options for interns to close the skills gap which exists between universities and the world of employment.

So what needs to be done to have this issue recognised by Westminster? Attempts to ban unpaid internships in Parliament last year were blocked by a four-hour filibuster between MPs. With seemingly more pressing items on the agenda for political parties, what hope do young people have in bringing this issue to top level decision makers? While there's lots that campaigners and others can do, ultimately the impetus for change has to come from Government. Issues like this show why it's more important than ever for young people to vote in the upcoming general election. Having a high 16-24 age turnout in the election could help push parties to appeal to the youth vote in future elections with policies like the regulation of internships.

The speaker from the careers event I attended and many others argue all students, whether they're privileged or not, who are hard workers would work overtime and nights if necessary to fund their internship and career progression. This line of argument ignores the inequality endemic to internships. It is unfair that some young people can afford to do an unpaid internship and take a step up the employment ladder, while those who cannot afford to work for free must limit their career development to provide for themselves and, in some cases, their families. In light of this, regulation, consideration and cooperation with relevant institutions can and must develop internships into a positive experience, that abides by the law, provides equal opportunities and a relevant insight into the skills needed for work, rather than entrenching unhealthy intensive work practices and unequal opportunities for young people.

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