It’s that time of year: boxes ticked, application forms submitted, brushing up for those verbal/ non-verbal/ competency/ psychometric and what-not tests, fortunate ones sprucing up for interviews. And think of all those managers, clicking their knuckles awaiting the summer to see all those eager students and graduates willing to take the voluntary unpaid work.  Or internship, to you and I: the established stepping-stone to employment.

This is a subjective matter and clearly depends upon all the variables involved: the organisation, the staff, the type of work, your plans and your character.  If an internship means I’ll have to struggle financially in the short term for a couple of months yet gain long term benefits – I’ll take it.  It’s an investment.  The right internship can provide invaluable experience and the networks, knowledge and skills gained can take the place of a credit card.  Demonstrating that you have the edge on your CV goes a long way when wooing potential employers.  Of course, this is based on my experience of embarking on a full time, two-month unpaid internship last summer.  It was a drain, I was skint but I was open-minded, was clear and determined in my intentions that I needed to improve my skills and genuinely wanted to get a better insight into how politics work.  I met some of the most inspiring people, who genuinely care about society.  It helped that I was shown gratitude and was taken out for lunch a couple of times.  I developed my skills and became a more confident person.  Having already spent summers working in retail and made to feel lousy, uninspired,  and knowing that the minimum wage was all I was working for, I knew that I had nothing to lose in taking an unpaid internship.  Money really isn’t everything.

Let me be clear: ‘unpaid labour’ is just that. It’s exploitation, and it’s unethical.  It’s important to provide the legal definition of what constitutes work.  It refers to a set number of hours in which a person is engaged for an extended period of time and being given a defined role, rather than just observing.  The law says that anyone working at the age of 22 or over needs to be paid the national minimum wage.  In contrast, a volunteer is under no obligation to perform work, has no contract or formal arrangement and has no expectation of and do not receive any reward for the work they do besides having their expenses reimbursed.  The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills set up the Graduate Talent Pool, ( wouldn’t be surprised if it has now been axed)and the major concern is that graduates from less well-off backgrounds and those burdened with thousands of pounds of student debt are affected most.  I am that poor graduate and the fact of the matter is everyone else is taking unpaid internships anyway.  There’s a demand for it, especially when it has recently been announced that more 16-24 year olds are out of work right now than at any other time since records began.  Paid internships are gold dust, and having an unpaid internship under your belt will enhance the chance of getting a paid one.

Quid pro quo, or ‘something for something’- that’s what internships are about.  The unethical aspect of some internships is not the fact that they are being unpaid.  The unethical aspect is that the intern did not know what to expect and are exploited instead.  So being an unpaid intern should not mean that you have nothing to do, except refilling the coffee-machine.  I think it’s important for the individual to assess whether the internship is ethical or exploitative, but helpfully the Chartered institute of Personnel and Development has produced these guidelines:

  • Interns should be recruited openly, in the same way as other employees.
  • Interns should be given as much responsibility and diversity in their work as possible.
  • Interns should be allowed time off to attend job interviews.
  • Interns should have a proper induction.
  • Organisations should allocate a specific individual to supervise interns, mentor them, and conduct a formal performance review to evaluate the success of their time with the organisation.
  • On completion of the internship, organisations should provide interns with a reference letter.

Internships offer more than volunteering and random paid jobs.  What is important is that the employer is clear right from the beginning what will be expected, what will be accomplished, and what won’t be on the agenda.  They are supposed to make sure the intern will gain something genuinely useful.  If not, it’s not an internship then.