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.