Ugh! Who’d be a young jobseeker today? In order to get your career started, it seems that it’s becoming the norm, especially in the creative industries, to “pay your dues” and gain experience by doing innumerable unpaid internships. Now, I can get behind the idea of starting at the bottom and working your way up, but the working for free thing is what sticks in my craw. Not only is it exploitative (not every intern will end up with a paid position), but it also means that generally it is only the children of the well-off who can afford an internship.
Consider the media. Here in the UK, that generally means going to London, one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. An intern who doesn’t already live there would have to pay housing costs, travel costs, and all the bills that come on top of that for six months to a year while earning nothing. I know people living in London who are paying more in rent for a house-share than I did for a whole flat to myself in a relatively posh part of Birmingham. An intern who has just graduated from university will already have over £10,000 of debt, so that means turning to the Bank of Mum and Dad to fund their internship.
But not everyone’s parents can afford to fund their child for a year (or more! Remember that there might be several internships). Hell, the reason that students are graduating with debts is because their parents can’t afford the university fees. So that leaves only the children of those who can support them who are able to take internships. They may be able to take more than one, thus gaining more experience, and hence being more likely to secure a paid position when one becomes available. Their poorer contemporaries, regardless of their passion or talent, cannot work indefinitely for no money. Ironically, it’s too expensive for them to do so.
It’s one thing to offer training and experience, but companies that do so in exchange for unpaid labour are excluding candidates on the basis of their wealth, rather than their skills. If it is impossible to gain experience without working for no money, then only the rich will be willing or able to take an internship. In turn, it will be the rich who end up being recruited. I’ve no doubt that there are cases where a poorer candidate has managed to bag an internship and gotten their foot in the door of their chosen industry, but I’m also sure that they are do not make up the majority of interns. This is why I believe internships are fundamentally unfair.
Not only that, but internships could also be bad for business. By recruiting from such a narrow band of society, you end up with people who all have similar backgrounds and outlooks. This can lead to a company (or even an entire industry) becoming a bit of an echo chamber. Received wisdom is not questioned, and there isn’t much impetus to innovate or see things differently, as things have always been done a certain way and nobody sees any reason to change it. The unwary business could find itself out of touch with society, or overtaken by changes in technology. In the end, a lack of diversity in the workforce is never a strength, and businesses who rely on interns would do well to remember that.
[Image by Br3nda]