We need to talk about internships

 7 April 2015

Since my first internship in March 2013, they have emerged as the default first step on the ladder for young people. Yet too often they are far from the enriching on-the-job learning experiences that they should be. At worst they are exploitative.

"A conservative estimate would be that there are around 25,000 unpaid interns working in the UK."

It’s no big surprise that we’ve come to this situation with internships, of course. In any jobs market where new opportunities are limited, there will always be scores of businesses looking to profit from those seemingly locked out of entry-level positions.

What’s alarming for me is the pace at which an entire generation of youngsters have become complicit with a system that so often fails to benefit them.

Applying the law to unpaid internships

Let’s deal firstly with the elephant in the room: unpaid internships. Almost as common as the preconception that you simply have to do an internship before getting a 'real job' is the idea that this will likely be unpaid.

Without an ongoing debate about internships, the more exploitative examples will only become normalised.

The legal framework around internships in the UK is simply phrased and, more often than not, unpaid internships are illegal.

If you are given set hours and tasks to perform on a day-to-day basis, your output consists of work and you are therefore entitled to the National Minimum Wage.

Enforcement is a big problem here. The Government has little desire to spend the resources to effectively deter companies from this practice and, furthermore, they show little interest in the discussion at all. 

While there has been a renewed effort to push apprenticeships and a lot of talk about reeling in zero-hour contracts, internships remain somewhat out in the cold. As well as the Government’s lack of interest, news agencies don’t run much on the issue.

A space to discuss unpaid internships

Statistics are hard to come by, but a conservative estimate would be that there are around 25,000 unpaid interns working in the UK. These trends are being replicated around the world. Stagiaires, becarios... regardless of the names they are given, the dilemma seems to be identical.

Intern Magazine struck me as an opportunity to create a forum for these discussions, and one that could offer a degree of insight into a system that is otherwise made quite deliberately unintelligible.

Our aim is always to present a variety of perspectives, in an unbiased manner, which means allowing those who undertake or run unpaid internships to also have their say.

It would be impossible to present a true reflection of the issues, attitudes and opinions at play if we were to be too heavily politicised. My personal stance is given away somewhat by our insistence in paying all of our contributors, but we are able to include valuable perspectives from top creative practitioners in the magazine through virtue of our stance.

It is important to have this discussion because it affects all of us, not just those who are contemplating and undertaking internships.

Internships in the creative industries

The creative industries are the chief focus of Intern Magazine (although we always look at other industries as well) for good reason. Equal access to creative industries is vital for our cultural production.

Equal access to creative industries is vital for our cultural production.

Unpaid internships mean that only those who can afford to work unpaid get their foot in the door. If this situation remains undiscussed and unchallenged, our creative output will soon stem from a tiny cross-section of our community whose perspective cannot possibly be broad enough.

Creativity is not determined by wealth, gender, race, belief, age or culture. It’s an inherent desire and ability to express oneself and communicate.

By learning from other people, industries, countries, cultures and legal systems it is up to us to define how creative industry recruitment should work.

In a society as beautifully rich and mixed as ours, we need to ensure that we’re not going to sleepwalk into an age defined by a singular cultural perspective.

The message of equality

Finally we’re seeing feminism breaking free of the damaging stereotypes that have looked to brand it a form of extremism and a new generation are understanding that the message is simply one of equality.

We need to ensure that we’re not going to sleepwalk into an age defined by a singular cultural perspective.

It might not seem so upon first glance, particularly if you’ve never done an internship, but the reason that this is a topic worth discussion is because it too revolves around that same fundamental concept of equality.

Without an ongoing debate about internships, the more exploitative examples of them will only become normalised. If young people aren’t made aware of their options through discussion, then they will enable all those who seek to illicitly profit from them.

There may be no straightforward answer or 'one size fits all' solution, but a creative discourse can surely only empower those who otherwise stand to be marginalised. If we don’t talk about this, no one else is going have the discussion for us. 

Find out more about Intern Magazine and buy the latest edition.