Paid internships – a red herring?

Not a day passes without a post or article coming before my eyes which berates the use of unpaid interns.  There are a lot of seasoned campaigners in this area, there a lot of people starting to speak out, there are petitions, there is general outcry and, quite frankly, there is a lot of group think and often a failure to grasp the real issues at the heart of the problem.

The question of internships is complex. First what constitutes an internship and what constitutes work experience or training? There seems to be general consensus, including from the report from the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions and more recently in their follow-up Common Best Practice Code for High Quality Internships, that internships are different to work experience, on many levels but not least on the duration of the placement.  But a lot of the newspaper reporting and outcry seems to fail to take this into account… this.

So if we can agree what we are talking about, then lets move us on to pay.  The argument put forward is simple, internships are work. There is a national minimum wage, therefore internships should be paid. Which of course is a simple and compelling case that is hard to disagree with and one that I wouldn’t challenge where the internships are work. But does this solve the problems of internships? No, it really doesn’t.

In fact it goes nowhere near…..and this is where I want to challenge those that are jumping on the band wagon.  Let us think back to why we argue internships should be paid. Well part of it is of course just a question of fairness of treatment, but part of it is about fairness of access. When internships are unpaid, it unfairly advantages those who can afford not to be paid for a period of time. And those that can afford not to be paid for a period of time are generally supported by their families, therefore leading to social disadvantage.

But unpaid internships aren’t new, the minimum wage legislation is (well comparably!). Pay doesn’t solve the access to opportunity – look at the figures on diversity in judges if you need any convincing. This is instead a question of advantage leading to advantage.  Simply arguing that internships should be paid, will not solve the problem and in many cases  will simply lead to the children of those who can most afford it being made better off, not better access to intern opportunities for those that can least afford it.

Which I don’t think is what people want.

So the real question we should be asking is, how to do we open up opportunities to a broader community and have a socially mobile society? And that is a really tough one.

When we talk about social mobility, we naturally think of people moving upwards.  A good thing.  But, if we accept the proposition that opportunity is finite, then in order for some people to move up, then others need to move down.  A bad thing. In order to offer internships to those that deserve but can’t afford them, we need to take them away from others, those that don’t deserve them but can afford them.  Is that really going to happen just by making employers pay? I don’t think so. What is the incentive to challenge the status quo?

Which brings me to Etsio. Now I’m not going to try to defend what could be seen as charging people to work – I don’t know what the experience is of the people undergoing the internships,but I don’t like the look of some of the “offers”. However, intellectually speaking a straight commercial approach could be seen as a more honest and open approach to the offering of internships than the “old school tie” or “old boys/girls club” approach that is prevalent in many sectors and which, I’d argue is overall a bigger inhibitor to social mobility.

I’ve written before about the gap between employers’ needs and the provision of the education system.  Access to good quality vocational training is really important in filling this gap and who is better placed to provide it than employers? It wouldn’t be a hard intellectual argument to say that if we could set a quality standard for the provision of internships and vocational training by organisations, that they should also be able to charge for it in the way that the FE and HE sectors charge for their courses. And of course, then you could extend the argument to say that people should be offered the same financial assistance offered by Government for education in the form of loans to undertake internships/vocational training. Perhaps this could provide a longer term sustainable approach to the UK skills gap?

I’m not necessarily advocating any of this, and I’m certainly not condoning the use of interns as “cheap labour”, I’m just pointing out that we need to think differently and look at the situation in its entirety rather than focus on a rather simple, populist element. So, next time you see or hear comment on internships and pay, do me a favour and think through what we really need to achieve here and not just what is simplest to get your head around? That way we might collectively go some way to solving the real problem.


  1. Adam Clennell · January 3, 2012

    We use unpaid volunteers here; we are a small business that can ill afford to pay people whilst obtaining work experience, however, we do enjoy helping those who want to experience HR. We always offer a summer placement for students in which they do indeed undertake some menial task, however, the vast majority of the time they spend shadowing our people and learning the job warts and all.

    • Neil · January 12, 2012

      Thanks for commenting. I think this highlights the difficult balance that a lot of companies face whilst trying to do the right thing.

  2. @BillBoorman · January 3, 2012

    As the name behind the petition, I think I should add my thoughts. In the case of Etsio, we are talking about a company acting as an introducer, not a provider, as none of the internships are with Etsio themselves. For my money this service makes them, and any other companies setting up in a similar vein, an employment agency. Agencies can not charge job seekers legally. I object to companies disguising this service as “training”, and if there is a legal loophole, it should be closed.
    I accept the point that companies may be well placed to act as training providers, and offer real training with measurable outcomes. As a training provider there is some argument that this service “could” be charged for.In this case I’d expect to see some clear standards to give those who sign up a clear idea of what to expect, and I wouldn’t label it as anything other than training. This is the course, this is the outcome, this is the delivery method, this is the cost.
    I think the term “internship” indicates supervised or managed work with the objective of learning new skills, putting learning in to practice through assignments. I’m not an intellectual or an academic,so I may see this in a different way to those of you who are a bit more learned, but as a former recruiter, that’s what I would take internship to mean on a CV. The biggest benefit of an internship is either a job or some experience that makes the intern more employable. I’m not convinced you should be paying for anything as informal.

    • Neil · January 12, 2012

      Bill, I think your points are really valid and I am certainly not trying to support Etsio (although I would also say I don’t know what experience individuals have with the companies). I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the whole issue of internships is complicated and just focussing on one element isn’t enough.

  3. James Mayes · January 3, 2012

    Read it. Taken a follow-up note. Can leave no higher praise, well said.

    • Neil · January 12, 2012


  4. Stephen O'Donnell · January 3, 2012

    This is one of those areas (like say lap-dancing) where there is a wider moral outrage, but the participants don’t feel exploited at all. However, the employment sector if replete with rules and regulations which attempt to set a level playing field for all, and obviate the need for exploitation by hard-pressed employers. Of course it could be tempting for an employer to accept payment from someone, who is doing the work of an employee, but we all feel it isn’t right.
    I, for one, believe that employers have a responsibility to train their own staff, even in the knowledge that many will be lost to other employers. I do realise that in-house, vocational, and professional training, or indeed college sponsorships are expensive. I appreciate that HR depts often have conditions built in to contracts, to ensure the investment is matched by a commitment from the employee, and often a penalty repayment if they leave within a stipulated period. However, the unsaid fear that drives most people’s response to this topic is that this Etsio represent the thin end of the wedge. As with the topic of University Tuition Fees, the notion of opportunity for, all according to ability and not affordability, is a strongly held principle.

    I do believe there should be rules to protect those who would allow themselves to be exploited. If an employer is to charge, then let it be through a formal scheme for the purpose, and not in brown envelopes of cash, or laundered via an unsavoury recruitment agency on the take.

    • Neil · January 12, 2012

      Agreed Stephen we need to be overt about this. But that requires brave thinking and the willingness of Government amongst others to tackle some of the bigger issues, which hopefully they will prove capable of doing.

  5. Michael · January 3, 2012

    Great article Neil!

    I agree it is a sticky subject and you cover all the points very well.

    Should one take into account the motivations of the specific employer? Many small businesses will in fact use interns as cheap labour, in which case I feel they should pay at least minimum wage . If the business in question need the resource, but their financial models cannot support the salaries then they should adjust their pricing accordingly. I can see why people object to this and I think in such cases it is wrong. But I accept that in many examples this is not the case.

    Would this situation by helped by creating some criteria or guidelines that need to be met for a placement to constitute an ‘internship’. This could be with some simple tests of whether this person is actually doing a ‘job’ i.e. Would they need to be replaced if they left? Or a minimum requirement of formal training hours provided in return for the free labour? Perhaps a maximum duration as well?

    Hopefully that would go some way to solving one of the big problems out there which is what different employers actually mean when they take on ‘interns’, what they expect and what they give in return.

    I know the government did produce some guidelines, but don’t know much about them other than I seem to remember that they were more about social mobility and diversity than defining what an internship should actually be.

    • Neil · January 12, 2012

      Michael, thanks for commenting. Yes, I think the motivation of the individual organisation should be taken into account and yes I think that there should be some standard for organisations to be able to offer internships, in the same way there is if they want to offer apprenticeships.

  6. Steve Ward · January 3, 2012

    The sadness of scenarios such as Etsio, as a worst case, is that in my experience discussing internship options with employers, they don’t know what they are ‘supposed’ to do, and neither do those seeking work experience and being given internship as an option.
    The likes of Etsio are preying on the blind, offering ‘solutions’ which we all know are wrong on many levels – albeit, yes – satisfying a need.

    This blog is a fantastic eye opener to those of us who are unsaved to some HR insights. This includes any smaller company who are without HR presence and make ill-judged decisions in this area.

    Good post Neil.

    • Neil · January 12, 2012

      Absolutely, people should know their rights, should know what they can and can’t do and they should know if and when they are being exploited that this is not ok. Sadly I think that some people feel that this is a choice and by accepting it, they will get ahead of the game.

  7. Amy · January 3, 2012

    Internships are of great value, if a role is unpaid it can help as an employer can see those who aren’t just in it for the money. This does mean that only those who can afford it take on the internships. I agree with your point about funding, there is a unite scheme that the university I’m at takes part it which allows the student to be paid £6 an hour for a maximum of 150 hours for small businesses that otherwise would be unable to fund the internship themselves. If a system similar to this could be in place across the uk then it would mean small businesses could take on interns without the cost becoming an issue.

    It’s good to read articles such as this, I’ve taken both paid and unpaid internships. The work I completed was the same, although the amount of attention and responsibilty I was given was vastly different.

    • Neil · January 12, 2012

      Amy thanks for your insight which is different to most of ours. I like the sound of the Unite scheme, which is exactly the sort of thinking that this subject requires.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s