Recently, an acquaintance of mine compared the average British internship to glorified slavery. Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration: there’s a reason there’s no film called 12 Years An Intern, where a hapless student gets left to hang from a tree for getting the tea order wrong. Still, a recent report from High Fliers Research – a group which works in graduate recruitment – suggests that they might just have one thing in common. Increasingly, you might not have much of a choice as to whether you take it up or not.
According to High Fliers, there’s been a little boom in the number of graduates hired by The Times Top 100 companies (the Top 100 essentially being a list of the UK’s biggest graduate employers). However, there’s a catch. 31% of these jobs will most likely go to those who already completed work experience or internships within the company. Those without any previous experience “will have little or no chance of receiving a job offer for their organizations’ graduate programmes”.
Based on that report, the message seems simple. If you want a job, internships and work placements in the company you hope to work for are the only way to get through the doors (without the aid of some sort of battering ram, but building security usually frowns upon that).
And you probably won’t be able to afford that battering ram, anyway, and unless your parents can help out you’ll probably have to cut back on stuff like “eating food” or “living under a roof”. You see, 31% of interns in the UK – roughly 21,000 students at any one time – are being paid a grand total of nothing for their work. Meanwhile, if you’re doing your internship in London, where a significant chunk of internships actually are, you can expect it to cost you £5,556 in total. Roughly, that works out at around £926 a month.
And incidentally, that’s assuming the company’s paying for your transport costs, which can serve as another hurdle in the vague shape of a middle finger to anyone who lives outside the capital.
As a result, even back in the misty, far-off past of 2013, 61 per cent of students in a Trade Union Congress Survey were already saying they definitely couldn’t afford a placement in London. Only 12 per cent could definitely say they could. Now, as internships become more and more mandatory, you can probably expect that number to shrink.
After all, if taking up an internship is the difference between getting a job and slowly rotting on a couch somewhere, why should the company have to pay you for that privilege? It’s an attitude already visible in the education industry, where classroom experience has always been a vital and mandatory requirement. There, around 45% of interns are unpaid, which YouGov suggests may be due to the fact a placement’s such a key part of their training.
Of course, there are arguments that internships have a benefit to the student more valuable than money – an argument that will only get louder as internships grow more vital. They provide valuable experience working in a potential career, teach students how to operate in a workplace, and serve as a valuable selling-point for a student’s CV. Furthermore, some claim that if businesses are forced to pay their interns a minimum wage, they might end their internship programs entirely in favour of hiring more skilled workers for the same price.
But as the system stands, businesses are currently losing out on bright, talented potential workers who simply cannot afford to take up an internship, no matter how much they might want or need to. For this reason, and on moral grounds, 65% of businesses agree that internships should be paid after four weeks. 70% believe that expenses, at least, should be paid.
It’s a measure, ultimately, that needs doing. Until then, the increasingly-mandatory path toward internships will only be available to a few.