The news that a rrecruitment company has been offering interns to employers at half the full-time minimum wage comes as no surprise, being just the latest in a series of controversial reports about the murky practices surrounding internships. Earlier this month, we found out that the think tank Civitatis International has been charging former interns £300 for reference letters, and last November research by the Sutton Trust uncovered the true extent of unpaid internships, finding that 31% of graduate interns are not getting any pay.
Up to now, the debate about internships has focused on egregious instances of malpractice such as these. In particular, the proliferation of unpaid internships has led to calls for them to be banned, or at least to limit the number of weeks that an intern can work for free. The broader point is that unpaid internships are bad not just for the interns themselves, trying to make ends meet and forced to rely on support from family and friends. They also mean many well-qualified individuals who cannot work for free are excluded from the starting rungs of career ladders in a wide variety of professions.
The difficulty here is that interns occupy an unclear position in the law. If an internship is part of a course of study, outside the private sector, or only involves 'work shadowing', then they are not classed as a worker and therefore not entitled to the minimum wage. But the line where work shadowing becomes actual work is not often clear to employers. And recent changes to the legal definition of 'workers' provided by HMRC have only served to complicate the issue. The difficulty of enforcement only adds to the confusion, with many employers likely to be breaking the law but not being penalised.
But even if these thorny legal issues surrounding internships were able to be cleared up, there is still much more that needs to be done to make the internship system function better. Work experience of the sort provided through an internship is crucial in securing a permanent position in many highly-skilled occupations. The media industry, accountancy, finance and law, among other sectors, all rely on a conveyor belt of interns to become the professionals of the future.
But as the Milburn review of access to the professions pointed out, paying interns alone is not going to broaden the make-up of these occupations. For them to better reflect wider society, there needs to be significant changes to how interns and other trainees are appointed. Businesses need to look to a broader set of universities, use fair and formal recruitment processes, and be sensitive to issues of diversity along the lines of social class, gender and ethnicity when designing internship programmes.
There is also little guidance offered to employers who do want to offer high-quality internships; the work that is appropriate for interns, the feedback, training opportunities, and employee benefits such as travel loans that should be offered.
While the government can't force employers to adopt good practices, they can have an impact, by clearing up the legalities surrounding internships, by being a role model when they are recruiting into the civil service, and putting pressure on their suppliers to do the same. They can also praise good practice through kite marks similar to the 'investors in people' brand that employers can sign up to.
But the first step must be clarity and enforcement of the law. Already there are thousands of unpaid interns struggling to make ends meet, and even more who are turned away from professions not because of their skills, but because of their economic background. If we want our workforce to be a reflection of society instead of inequality then we need to widen access to internships, improve their quality, and make sure they are paid.