Some commentators falsely suppose that unpaid internships are no more than exploitation of free labour.  They suggest that interns working for no money deprive others of paid employment, and that they give employers a low-cost way of cutting production costs.  Some campaign in Parliament to make unpaid internships illegal.  This approach misses the value that unpaid internships provide.

For an employer, recruitment has its costs.  They are taking on someone unknown, someone who comes with risks.  Do they have alcohol problems? Can they carry out assignments?  Are they trouble-makers?  If they have worked as an intern, they are to some extent a known quantity.  They have had a chance to show their worth and reveal any problems. 

The value to the intern is that they get a foot in the door, plus the opportunity to discover if the job is something they would be comfortable with and capable of doing well at.  Many career advisors tell people trying to enter the job market to volunteer their services on an unpaid basis for a month or two, and many of those who take this advice find it gives them access to jobs from which a simple application accompanied by a CV would have precluded them.

There is a bias in the intern system, of course.  It is that only those who can afford to do so can take unpaid internships.  It might need the Bank of Mom and Dad to sustain them while they do so, and some parents simply cannot afford this.

Furthermore, there is an unofficial network of professional people prepared to accept each other’s sons and daughters as interns to help them set a first foot on the job ladder.  The answer is not to seek ways to ban this by outlawing unpaid internships, but to develop organizations to help those who lack sufficiently wealthy or well-connected parents.  Job-market equivalents of the Suttton Trust can train people to apply for internships and help fund those who need support while doing so.

Given such measures to improve and extend access to them, internships can be a vital tool in securing and maintaining a vibrant job market. They should be encouraged not banned.

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20 COMMENTS

  1. This something I’ve done several times in my life. First job I ever had, when I was still at school, was helping at the office of a relative for not much more than the cost of getting there, a free lunch & a few shillings pocket money. Walked into my first job, on leaving school, already know much of how to do it.
    Since, any time I want to acquire a new talent, I talk someone into teaching me in exchange for free assistance in what they’re doing. Result’s I’ve got a dozen or more things I could go do as a living, any time I wanted. And the cross fertilization of knowledge between them gives me an advantage at all of them.

  2. If society believes there should be a minimum wage for work then being able to get round it by calling something an ‘internship’ isn’t right. There are strong arguments against the minimum wage, but for most of the roles where being an intern matters then the work being done is generally valued higher than the minimum wage anyway. The solution may not be to allow internships, but to make hiring and firing easier – recruit someone on a minimum wage with a 1 week rolling contract. If they aren’t any good just don’t renew the contract. Most of the value of internships isn’t that the candidates are free, but that they are easy to get rid of when you realise they aren’t any good. If they are good then put them on a permanent contract and raise their salary to whatever the market rate is given their experience.

  3. It was only a few years ago I discovered that internships were unpaid. And my immediate thought was: but these are adults, aren’t they, what the *** are they supposed to live on?

    If they’re unpaid, they should just call them what they ***y well are: work experience, exactly what I did when I was at school.

  4. Underpaid work is the heart of small-town baseball clubs. The average player even at the AAA level works for barely enough to live on, and there are leagues across the U.S. where university kids play for free. The “pay” here is to make it to the Bigs and strike it rich. The hot dog vendors and the guy in the dog suit likewise work for college credit. That’s how you can get in the gate for only $5. Obama, of course, was going to ride to the rescue of these exploited workers, and do to baseball what he did to health insurance. You learn how to interact, when to complain, when to keep quiet in an internship; you famously learn little about the real world in the classroom.

  5. Amateur sports (or even semi-amateur) are a completely different topic, if you want to do something for fun or volunteer for something then fair enough. We’ll also leave the USAs strange mix of semi-professional sport and university entry for another discussion.

    Nobody disagrees that having work experience is a good thing and teaches many experiences that you won’t learn in the classroom. But work experience and being on a trial for a job are two different things. If an intern is doing real work, for an extended period of time, bringing real value to the company then they should be paid to compensate them for the work. Minimum wage and minimal job security is fine, but it should at least limit the current abuses of the system where the employer is just using it to freely fill a job vacancy. Even limited periods of work experience (2 weeks) where the employer is actually providing mentoring and an experience, and it is clear what is on offer and available at the end may be fine as long as it isn’t misrepresented.

  6. Seems weird to worry about average Joe getting more than average Jane when little Trisram is slaving away for SFA down in the mail room and nobody gives a toss. OK for sixteen-year-olds, adults (which we define as 18!) need paying.

  7. Thank you for offering your aesthetics on “fair” pay, but do you really intend that third parties impose them on work arrangements where the parties voluntarily agreed to different terms? Rhoda’s criterion is crossing the arbitrary legal definition of adulthood, while that of mole125 seems to be that the employer not benefit more than the employee, in some distant observer’s opinion (though both believe they are benefitting more from the work arrangement than they would in its absence).

  8. Rhoda’s ideal wouid be that anyone can make an agreement with anyone else about work using money or other value. Totally libertarian. But that horse bolted centuries ago. If we are to have stupid employment laws they should be applied, not worked around. Can’t believe I’m writing that given my relationship with IR35.

  9. Well, that is a typical argument of a “libertarian” whom government has harmed arguing that other people be comparably harmed, toward some concept of even-handedness. So it is that bricks-and-mortar stores have argued for years (now before the U.S. Supreme Court) that we should break the longstanding rule that a state cannot tax a business in another state (with no physical presence in the taxing state), so their e-commerce competitors can experience predation equally. I say two wrongs don’t make a right.

  10. Adults at work, doing productive work, should get minimum wage at least. Of course restrictive laws always result in anomalies. There does need to be provision for voluntary free work. Internships vary between good work experience and slavery, with a dash of nepotism and a splash of privileged access. I would deal with this on a personal level by telling my kids not to work for nothing and putting the shutters down at BOMAD if they insisted. I don’t think we need any new rules. As for US interstate commerce, if I were trying to fix it I wouldn’t start from here. Same goes for employment laws.

    • “Adults at work, doing productive work, should get minimum wage at least.”

      Why? What if they’re not productive to the minimum wage level? What if they’re worth £4/hr when they join? What if they need lots of training, costing lots of money, meaning they aren’t delivering much?

  11. I would shut down the entire federal Wage and Hour Division, or at the least transfer it to a new, Cabinet-level Department of New Problem Creation alongside the EPA, and relocate the entire thing to its own office complex, with non-working phones and Internet and backed-up plumbing. If I had kids, I would tell them: Take the job, don’t be insulted at the pay (or lack of pay), and remember that every veteran knows at least one thing that you don’t and most are willing to teach it to you.

  12. Odd reference but I recall taking my son to see one of the transformer movies and at one point the main character (human not robot) is being interviewed for a job and when he’s offered something he responsed that it’s not the job he wants to which the reply is that it’s the job he has to do to get the job he wants. Turned to my son and told him to remember that point

  13. I know of an organisation that offers internships (low paid not work for free) to people who may have trouble getting work experience either because of juvenile issues or stereotyping of certain groups. They said they can help a lot more people by bringing people in on the internships than just employing a couple of people full time. They also give proper references when asked for the interns not the standard confirmation type that HR usually insists on. Work experience and a solid reference make a big difference in landing first job for some people

    • Supervisors at the ballpark provide detailed reviews for each unpaid intern. The university wants real data on which to assign grades, and the ball club wants the university to cooperate the following year. Yes, the recent increase in legal liability for delivering an honest review of an unproductive paid employee is yet another thing that has “cut the bottom rungs off the career ladder” along with wage-and-hour legislation.

  14. Agree, it may well be worth it taking an internship in return for a proper reference.
    Minimum wage legislation has meant that interns are paid a discretionary payment to cover expenses as wages fall foul of the minimum rules, but I assume the minimum wage crew will come after that soon making it harder to help people or incurring a cost that’s too high so in the example above they will be able to help less people.

  15. The legal status of an intern is best established by putting them on the payroll. What happens if the intern is injured or, heaven forfend, killed on duty? The risk to the employer is too great to leave uncovered.

  16. But if you work as an inpaid intern you lose unemployment benefits because you’re, well, not unemployed. And if you’re not rich enough to not actually need a job in the first place to stay alive then you starve. And if you’re rich enough to not need a job to stay alive, then please bloody well fuck off and leave the jobs to us that do.