Although there has been a crackdown on unpaid internships, they’re very much still being advertised. You only have to check out some of the job listings on sites such as w4mpjobs.org or workinstartups.com and you’ll see employers asking for work without pay, usually with travel expenses and lunch reimbursed instead.
This is more understandable when working for a start-up, which might have a tight budget, but when someone like Conservative minister Dominic Raab offers an unpaid internship in his office for up to six months, it seems a tad exploitative.
The graduate jobs market is highly competitive and unpaid internships reflect this level of intense competition. With so many graduates hungry for the top jobs, and limited places available, working for free has become the new ‘starting at the bottom’, as opposed to working for minimum wage.
The problem, though, is that only a very narrow slice of graduates will be able to afford to do an unpaid internship in London. This results in certain industries – such as the media and fashion – selecting on the basis of wealth and privilege, rather than purely talent and ability. Indeed, unpaid internships widen the gap between the rich and poor.
But even if you take issue with unpaid internships, as a graduate you may still be wondering if they’re worth doing. There are some crucial things to consider before making this decision.
1. Can you afford it?
The first thing to consider is whether you can realistically afford to do an unpaid internship. Not everyone can work for free (surprise, surprise).
Since many unpaid internships are based in London, you have to take into account all of the costs that come with living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Many unpaid internships are full-time, so if you need to take on extra work to afford going out or paying your parents some rent money, then there is a risk of becoming over-stressed and over-worked. However, some people are driven and determined enough to make it work.
2. Is it legal?
Intern Aware campaign for fair, paid internships. They have highlighted the conditions under which an intern counts as an employee, and therefore requires payment. An intern must be paid minimum wage if:
- They are personally providing a service
- They are providing a service to a person who is not their client or customer
- They are working under a contract, whether implied or expressed
When it comes to court decisions regarding whether an intern should count as an employee, important factors include:
- Whether the intern is made to work set hours
- Whether the work being performed by the intern would normally be performed by a paid member of staff
- Whether the intern is left to work unsupervised
- Whether the intern has to work to deadlines or manage other staff
So, read the job description carefully to get an idea of what exactly you will be doing. If it seems like you’ll be doing work which would normally receive payment, then it deserves payment.
During an interview for an unpaid internship, be sure to ask the relevant questions to get a sense of the nature of the work and other relevant information. Remember, based on what most unpaid interns actually do, they should count as employees.
If you see a dodgy unpaid internship advertised, be sure to report it to Intern Aware. This should be the case even if you’ve already completed the internship, but since realised that you should have paid for it.
3. Will it lead to a permanent job?
Don’t accept an unpaid internship without considering whether it will lead to a full-time, permanent position. If you’re interning at an organisation that you’d be overjoyed to work for, with the hope of progressing into a permanent position, read the job description carefully to see if this is on the table.
Some job listings will unequivocally say that there is a view for the intern to become a permanent member of staff, while others may more tentatively mention that there is the possibility of this happening. If there is no mention of a possible permanent position when the internship is finished, and you have an interview, then it’s worth asking the interviewer what interns end up doing after their placement.
4. Will you gain any valuable skills?
Even if an internship doesn’t land you your dream job, this doesn’t mean that they’re a complete waste of time. This is why it’s vital to find out if an unpaid internship will impart valuable skills, experience and knowledge that will realistically enhance your career prospects. An unpaid internship which involves doing very menial tasks is unlikely to be worth your time.
Who knows how long unpaid internships will be around for? There is certainly pressure to have them banned, with politicians and campaign groups arguing that they impede social mobility and penalise the working class.
Banning them may be a necessary step to truly creating a fair society. But with so many companies benefiting from the exploitation of workers, such a ban could receive a lot of counter-pressure.
Sam Woolfe writes for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment agency which specialises in sourcing candidates for internships and giving out graduate careers advice. To browse graduate jobs London and graduate jobs Manchester, visit their website.