Do companies use unpaid internships to take advantage of desperate graduates, or do they offer valuable experience for those trying to get their foot into the world of work?
A Pay Your Interns internet campaign has named and shamed companies which offer unpaid or low-paid internships. It accuses them of exploiting graduates who crave experience by employing them for free to cut costs.
The campaign’s website drew attention to Topshop for advertising work experience paying £3.50 a day plus travel expenses. In its defence, Topshop said that they would just shadow employees, rather than actually doing any work.
Tesco was also called out for advertising 145 unpaid “customer assistance” internships, described as “shelf stacker interns” by critics. A backlash forced the supermarket to pull these ads. Tanya de Grunwald, who is behind the campaign, told the Guardian:
‘A practice that appears to be harmless – helpful, even – has turned out to be extremely damaging. We believe that unpaid internships exploit those who do them, and exclude those who can’t afford to do them.’
Are unpaid internships worth it?
But is this the whole story? Can’t unpaid internships be beneficial? I myself have dipped my toe into these waters – not only did they improve my CV, they confirmed my career choice and ultimately helped me get the job I do today.
There are some caveats – not only were these short-term internships, I gained skills that would be beneficial to the career I had chosen. I wasn’t simply doing the same old grind without adding anything to my repertoire.
Then again, if I was doing skilled work that benefited the company, shouldn’t I have been paid? Personally, I saw these arrangements as mutually beneficial. In fact, it’s something I fought the Job Centre for.
The Job Centre wasn’t interested in me doing lengthy unpaid work – but I argued that unless I went out and gained more experience, I’d be getting cheques from them for much longer. Thankfully, I was allowed to complete my unpaid internships while continuing to sign on.
Give interns monetary support
However, unpaid internships can keep out those who don’t have the luxury of financial support. At Which? we pay our interns and graduates. They’re doing work for us, so they deserve to be paid for it. I spoke to our current intern Richard Huzzey for his thoughts:
‘I have gained a lot from my time at Which?, both in terms of developing my skills and gaining valuable experience.
‘However, as far as companies offering unpaid internships, I’m concerned that they are taking paid jobs, particularly those at an entry-level position, out of the market. This makes it very difficult for those starting out in a career and seems very unfair for those without the resources to take lengthy unpaid positions.’
For me, it’s also a matter of intention – if the company intends to give its interns valuable experience to aid them in the job market, an unpaid internship could be justified. If they’re trying to cut costs by employing cheap labour, throw them on the fire.
Do you think companies should be encouraged to pay interns so everyone’s given a chance, or should graduates man up and accept unpaid work in order to gain essential experience?