There’s more to a “progressive internship” than pay

25th March, 2012 11:33 am

Ever since I was a paid intern myself, learning the ropes of a professional role in 2008, I’ve been a strong supporter of the principle of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

To my mind, if a young person is willing to offer time and enthusiasm to an organisation in exchange for experience, that organisation should recognise its responsibility to support its junior partner with everything it can reasonably give: training, skills and the money required to live above the poverty line.

I appreciate that there are challenges to this general principle. Many small businesses cannot afford to pay interns as much as they’d like, while the professional development and references they provide can nevertheless be invaluable to a young person’s development. And in politics, how do you distinguish between an “internship” and the free volunteerism and open activism which do so much to power our democracy?

Yet in spite of those grey areas, in these difficult times of record youth unemployment – and with access to good jobs in journalism, medicine and the law still firmly closed to the majority of young people – it’s more important than ever that the Labour Party campaigns for paid internships which open access to those who would most benefit from the new experiences which can lead to genuine social mobility.

What frustrates and concerns me, however, is that the debate about what constitutes a fair internship has become so narrowly focused on income alone. The assumption within the Labour Party, and the commentators and think tanks that so inform our direction, is that a paid internship is, by definition and of itself, enough to be progressive — that is to mean, that a job which pays a living wage is automatically more supportive of people from non-privileged backgrounds than one which doesn’t.

The danger of such a simplistic assumption is that it constrains our debate to one that begins and ends with access to income. In truth, we should be far more ambitious than that: our purpose and our politics should be about expanding access to opportunity as well.

So it is never enough, as I have encountered three or four times now, for any organisation to boast of its “progressive internships” policy, while those positions are then given to privately educated Oxbridge graduates from well-connected families. I have nothing against those young people from fortunate backgrounds. But they are already more likely to succeed in the professions than most. Internships should be about opening opportunities for people who might otherwise struggle to break down those most persistent of barriers.

Labour campaigners therefore need to broaden their definition of what makes a progressive internship. Pay should be one aspect of that campaign — but it should be the base minimum of our expectations of an enabling internship, not the Holy Grail. And those in the privileged positions to make hires should consider the value they can add to their young interns by looking beyond the traditional talent pools, and by recruiting young people from a range of backgrounds and with various qualifications and none. Only that way will we create truly progressive internships that support as many people as possible to be everything they can be.

  • GuyM

    Internships, like work experience or even standard employee hires is entirely at the discretion of the manager and organisation.

    Expecting anyone to chose one candidate over anothre on the basis of a worse background is simply going to cause a lot of laughter in the private sector.

  • TomFairfax

    Hi Alex,
    I have to admit I find the whole concept of internships an alien concept, as I’ve never worked in an industry that has such things.

    The nearest equivilent I guess would be a Summer job or sandwich training placement. Given the shortage of engineers, then clearly not paying and training would damage the organisations ability to recruit.

    I suspect the problem of internship exists because they are found only in those areas where there is in no way a shortage of applicants. However, not paying and training means putting obstacles in place to getting the best people for the roles, which must surely damage such an organisation in the long term.

    Still a good article. Nice to see you’re still around.

  • Mike Homfray

    I think somewhere to live is pretty much vital – the problem is that I can’t imagine anyone not from the ‘correct’ networks thinking about taking this path

    • treborc

      I suspect being an intern depends a lot on how your willing to live, or whether your rich enough or your parents are.

  • Guido Fawkes

    I feel strongly about this, I know that if I had told my dad I was going to go work as an intern for free when I was 19 he’d have said no way. I think it should however be made legal to pay interns at apprentice rates even on short internships. Businesses can’t justify paying an intern the same as someone experienced when they don’t know there arse from their elbow.

    • John Ruddy

      I cant believe this – i agree with Guido Fawkes.

      I’m off for a lie down in a darkened room.

    • Rowan Draper

      I also feel strongly about this:
      Why should apprentices (or interns) earn a half of what someone on minimum wage earns, because of a perceived lack of skill? Is it right that someone training to be a better electrician, plumber, administrator is paid half of what a cleaner, waiter or retail shop worker earns? Someone experienced will command a different salary, if the business is doing the right thing, but they aren’t. Their role is to squeeze the books to make sure they get as much profit as possible, because what other point is there to being in business? It doesn’t provide justification to reduce candidates with less ‘experience’ to working for a pittance. There’s a standard for a reason.

      To be honest there’s a lot of ‘experienced’ people who don’t know their arse from their elbow yet they command a massive salary and I’m sick of it being used to villify (generally) younger people who are struggling to find work because the world is now a business-dominant labour market.

      Interns, who are generally graduates, cannot afford to be dropped back to the kinds of pay they could expect to receive when they were 16 (even if for a short time). The decisions government and business are taking are solely in their interest and not in the interest of people who cannot find work, who aren’t employed and are having the rest of their life stopped for a crisis they didn’t cause. 

      Suggestions that people can and should accept less than the going rate because a right-wing blogger, politician or think tank says we can’t afford it should end now. If the Government has enough money to blow on HS2, bungling WCML bids and a 40k tax break for the top earners in this country then they should have enough money to bring youth unemployment down to single digits.


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