I have read some of the articles about interns and I do agree that you need resources to be able to do an unpaid internship for any length of time and this does discriminate against less privileged members of society. However, in my area of work with international students, we find that internships are so important to them, they will save money from their student jobs and do menial jobs at weekends, whilst doing placements, in order to be able to fund the experience.
It is increasingly evident that without experience, it is very difficult to get career progression, particularly in industries like the Arts, Media, Finance etc. Unpaid experience is often the only way to bolster a C.V. and give the graduate a chance to get on the first rung of their chosen career ladder. Large companies do have structured placement schemes and many can afford to pay minimum wage, but for most small and medium sized enterprises, paying an intern is beyond their budget. Employers also feel that time is needed to dedicate to raw recruits and that the experience they will have will be invaluable and build up much needed practical knowledge, work skills and understanding of business.
If the government start imposing laws on businesses (already badly hit by the recession) to pay interns for short periods of less than 6 months, this will be the death knoll to young people gaining the experience they need to enter a competitive job market and could also mean the quality of many potential candidates is adversely affected by sheer lack of practical know-how.
The only way to turn this situation on its head is to offer old style ‘apprenticeships/articles/training contracts’ where students no longer attend university, but learn on the job and study part time to gain relevant qualifications. Historically, this was an accepted way to learn a trade or profession and there is no evidence to show that those who qualified in this way were any less able than today’s graduates. In fact, it was quite customary to pay employers to take on a trainee, for example in the legal profession!
Until this method of gaining qualifications becomes more widespread, unpaid internships, for many, will be the only way forward for real career development. In any event it is not an abuse of someone’s human rights to allow them to work for no pay when they have volunteered themselves and desperately want to gain the experience to enhance their employment prospects. Ultimately, this is the decision of the individual and not the government.
The author of this post works as a Careers’ Counsellor and manages The Careers Office and Internship Programme Manager for a global group of higher education colleges for international students, which offer a variety of professional qualifications such as Accountancy and Law, as well as undergraduate and post graduate degrees and English language courses.