When is an internship not an internship?
Internships are about access, not just cash.
Nick Clegg blundered into the debate on internships yesterday, making it a symbolic pillar of the Government’s social mobility strategy. But the promise to end informal internships in Whitehall and put an end to the ability to get on in life being about ‘who you know’ has turned into a messy row about politicians’ own experience and practices, and who gets paid rather than who gets access.
The arguments against internships are well known and easy to make. They’re exclusive geographically and financially, they’re of varying quality, they’re a false economy, they often require an ‘in’ to get one. But lost in the bun fight about who benefitted from what and who exploits who, is an agreement over what exactly an internship is.
A commitment to pay interns is admirable (and a legal requirement if they’re doing work that would otherwise be paid for). But let’s not forget that internships are meant to be a two-way exchange – a lot of learning, where the employer passes down knowledge and experience in exchange for taking on inexperienced staff. Many of the organisations that proudly talk of their commitment to remuneration have very high standards for their ‘interns’ so high, in fact, that what passes as an intern in one organistion, is an entry level job at another. Those who get paid internships are the ones who have the fullest CVs and the most experience. They’ve probably done at least one internship already. And they go through an interview process just as tough as a job interview. One organisation I spoke to recently admitted that their highly-experienced, paid interns normally go on to get permanent jobs there, making their three month internship more of a drawn-out job interview than a chance to get a taste of a working environment.
I’m not defending unpaid internships. But the money part is just one bit of internships being exclusive. Demos’ research into workplace training in our report Access All Areas showed that who is able to do an internship is as much about aspiration and what level of education and experience employers are willing to accept as it is about making sure that people who live outside London and don’t have their parents bankrolling them can afford to spend a few months working for free.
Lack of flexibility with many internships means that disadvantaged young people, many of whom are NEET, can’t negotiate interning around benefits or part-time work. Reclassifying internships as training rather than employment, making them work for people who can only do 16 hours per week and making them available to people who don’t have previous experience will do much more for improving internship culture than paying middle class graduates who already have a clear advantage in the workplace.
Opening up internships means that employers need to be prepared to look beyond the pool of top quality graduates and go out of their way to recruit young people who need experience, as well as those who already have it.