Unfair Internships: Is the job hunt still a meritocracy?

Internships are the foot in the door so many students and graduates desperately need to break into the job market. Today it seems that every graduate must endure the task of memorising twenty ‘frappamochacino’ orders in the morning and stapling and photocopying until sunset. For many industries, an internship is the only way in, the only way to secure interviews and an essential three lines on a CV. Fashion, publishing, journalism, marketing… All are industries graduates dream of breaking into, and all are propped up by the hard work of interns.

The Sutton Trust, a charity and think tank dedicated to educational equality reported last Wednesday that a third of university graduates working as interns do so for no pay. The financial burden of these internships was also detailed, with a six month internship in London costing on average of £926 a month and in Manchester, £804. This leads to several job fields being the preserve of those whose affluent families can fund such placements, opening a Pandora’s Box of corruption and inequality.

The report sparked a massive response, with several commentators declaring unpaid internships to be a class issue of national importance.  Caitlin Moran tweeted “Unpaid internships are a massive class issue. I would never have been able to become a journalist if I hadn’t been paid.” Have unpaid internships have transcended debate about fairness and labour and have entered the realm of class? As The Guardian’s go to leftie, Owen Jones commented “Unpaid internships, otherwise known as “allowing the children of the rich to buy lucrative professional jobs.”

Educational equality remains a far off goal but thousands of students at British universities come from working class backgrounds. These thousands of students, nor their families, cannot afford to spend £926 on a month of CV boosting work. If thousands of graduates are simply priced out of internships and later on, top jobs, internships appear to be a barrier to meritocracy. When one considers their unfairness, class divisions and exclusivity aside, are there any advantages to unpaid internships?

There is an argument to say that the experience gained from undertaking such a placement is so valuable that the lack of pay is negligible. Student, Ross McGarrie spoke to qmunicate about his experience. “I worked for a graphic design agency for four weeks and it was a great experience although there was no pay…  I learned a lot of Photoshop and video editing skills that would have cost a small fortune if I were to do courses on them.” It’s undeniable that the skills learned during a quality internship are incredibly valuable and perhaps in some circumstances, they do in fact save cash. These financially positive internship experiences should of course be celebrated, but they do appear to be in the minority.

Of course, some internships are paid well. Publishing house, Penguin run a paid internship scheme developed after the group signed up to the Pay Your Interns campaign which is dedicated to pressuring companies to pay their interns the living wage. Perhaps internships such as these are the way forward. Graduates and students need work experience. A degree is no longer enough to make a CV pop, six months in a publishing house or a graphic design firm however, may do just that.

One English student spoke to qmunicate about his own experience working in a publishing firm and his belief in an “intern-wage” such as offered by Penguin. “I come from a poor background from a poor family, so unpaid internships are not something I can usually do. I was lucky holiday plans fell through so I had a little to spend. I was doing a 40 hour week and I really begrudged not being paid a penny. However, it’s probably the best thing I have on my CV.” Is this intern-wage a solution? If more companies were to adopt this approach, perhaps a more meritocratic system of internships and work could be achieved.

The Sutton Trust’s report highlights an often ignored barrier to social mobility. It’s no longer enough to focus on access to universities and colleges, we must also focus on graduate prospects and their inequalities. “Education. Education. Education” is no longer sufficient. Work experience is practically essential for any graduate and what is essential must be affordable.

[Claire Thomson – @clairecatrina]

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