Unpaid internships are under fire again as Labour commits to curbing their use and limiting them to just one month if they are elected in May. They argue that the move is fair for potential employees and will help prevent the richest parent’s ‘locking up’ the jobs that would otherwise be payable. What’s more, The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, chaired by the Labour former cabinet minister Alan Milburn, has called for unpaid internships to be made illegal by 2020, citing them as a major barrier to social mobility.
Here at apt, we are all for internships and each year, we take on and pay a number of interns who come through our doors; we don’t however pay them all, simply because we can’t. Reading all the coverage and column inches that this Labour statement has gained, we can’t help feeling the view is a little naive and ‘London-centric’, rather than considering the needs of businesses elsewhere in the country and the circumstances or wants of these interns. Indeed Liam Byrne, the shadow minister for Universities, Science and Skills, has questionably said “There are now 100,000 internship opportunities a year, most in London”. For the purposes of this blog post therefore, let’s ignore London for a minute and focus instead a little more close to home…
Our MD Angie is a firm believer in the power of work experience and the on-the-job learning, which provides an insight and skills no University seems able to deliver. In fact, those who have had a placement tend to be significantly more skilled and adaptable to full-time employment than those who haven’t and sadly in many cases, employees without formal training in our field are often better equipped than University students! Yet putting it in perspective, we are a small organisation (and lack the means of many London-based conglomerates) and if forced to pay every single intern, we’d only ever be able to pass on our expertise to a single individual each year. Last year, we took on 42 work experience placements or interns, ranging from one week to one year, and we certainly couldn’t have afforded to take them all on if every one was paid, much as we would have liked to! Now granted, we know the idea for the policy is to encourage payment for placements of more than a month, but even so, it just doesn’t take into account circumstances. Here are some of the things we think they should be thinking about…
- Business Size – The promise seems to be applied to all, not just those large enough to pay who simply prefer not to. If we were forced to pay all interns, or if unpaid ones were made illegal, there would be no paid vacancy listed by us, we’d simply go without. No in fact, for us, part of the desire to employ interns is to ensure comprehensive education and opportunities that they would not otherwise have – we don’t need them to keep the business afloat and help us deliver the work.
- Circumstances – we’re not sure how you would police this one, but when you aren’t focussing attention on London, often the cost of living or circumstances are very different. On average each year, we get 600-700 unsolicited requests for work experience each year and many of those are for summer / holiday placements while they live at home. Now this doesn’t mean we can exploit them, granted, however when 600-700 individuals are willing to put themselves forward for experience, they will be doing so having assessed their circumstances and the associated cost. At this stage, we have a choice; we offer them a free placement and in exchange give them with a lot of time and resource to help them upskill, or we don’t bother. We’ll never be able to pay them all, so an enforced policy will simply mean a lot less young people with a lot less opportunity.
- Payment – whilst we’d like to tell you otherwise, unfortunately a lot of University students aren’t actually that adept on the job. They understand the principles, but nothing quite prepares them for the reality of working in an agency, real client scenarios and the need to apply what they learn. It actually means that often, some school-leavers are savvier that those we interview for a University placement. The new policy suggests minimum wage should be paid, but why would anyone? Internships are about training and experience and yes, it should be recognised financially that time is being given, but what about the time of the companies? If there is a job available, surely it is better to pay a bit more than minimum wage to get someone you don’t have to train from scratch, than to pay someone for little more than a school-leaver quality. Yes, there are some huge sweeping statements here (forgive us), but it’s kind of an irritating suggestion – maybe minimum expenses, or an arrangement more like the apprenticeship scheme would be fair and more sustainable? Our apprentice is one of the best young employees we have ever had and she is better than a lot of the University students we have ever employed, so why would we bother giving up our time at all if we have to pay for the privilege every time too?
Now our opinions are neither right nor wrong; they are simply that – opinions. However reading the coverage we can’t help but feel that the policy is little more than a headline grabber and one which places little value on free market economics. In fact, often with an Intern it requires more time and resource to train them in the specialist skills that we need, than to deliver the job ourselves, so it wouldn’t be a sensible commercial decision. We’ll watch this story with interest, but it’s safe to say if Labour is elected and do fulfil their commitment, it’ll be bye-bye to many of our interns and it won’t be hello to anymore staff!