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Should we pay interns or expect them to work for free?

In the last 30 years the number of 18 to 24-year-olds who have undertaken an internship in the United Kingdom has increased ten-fold from 2 per cent to 20 per cent – reveals Stephen Knight

It is the perennial catch-22, you go to university to get the qualifications to launch your career and employers are asking what experience you have. You go straight into the workforce at 18 and future employers are looking for a degree level qualification.

The obvious answer for the work-hungry graduate with little or no experience is to grab an internship to add that all-important experience to their academic prowess and help them stand out in the desperately competitive graduate jobs market.

The popularity of internships has increased in London in recent years as universities encourage undergraduates to get a taste of their chosen career and entry-level jobs are increasingly competitive. The National Union of Students, in The United Kingdom, found that in the last 30 years the number of 18 to 24-year-olds who have undertaken an internship has increased ten-fold from 2 per cent to 20 per cent. If you want to work in fashion, media, politics or finance it is virtually seen as compulsory to complete at least one and in many cases multiple internships.

Paid internships are highly sought after. Some come with no salary and often little in the way of expenses. When graduates are eager to get experience and a foot in the door, taking on an unpaid internship may seem like a rite of passage and the only way to gain employment in their field. These unpaid internships are creating a social divide between those who can afford it and those who simply cannot work for free and feed themselves.

Some employers claim to open doors for aspiring young talents by offering unpaid internships. In reality, they limit their pool of potential recruits to the few who can afford to live in London without being paid – usually getting by with the help of family members. At a recent City Hall meeting one intern told the London Assembly’s Economy Committee that she had to work a part-time job until she had saved enough money to take on an unpaid internship.

A significant number of UK internships are located in London; relocating to the capital to fulfil their ambitions and get the experience is an added barrier for those wanting to kick-start their careers. Another intern told us that having moved from the north of England, the only way to complete her internship – which led to her current job in the online fashion industry – was by moving in with her aunt. Not everyone has those supportive family ties to help with the expense of living in the capital.

Unpaid internships are not only unfair to Londoners who work set hours and contribute to businesses; they are also illegal under national minimum wage legislation. Businesses that fail to pay their interns the minimum wage risk prosecution by the government, which has recently targeted London’s fashion industry in an attempt to drive out the practice of unpaid internships.

A growing number of companies are realising that offering paid internships with proper support and training can give their businesses a competitive advantage. We know that ASOS now hires more than 20 paid interns a year. Representatives from the company told our committee how they want to nurture talented people for the future of the rapidly developing e-fashion industry. Paying interns ensures that ASOS gets quality candidates and retains more than 80 per cent of their interns in full time positions.

Good quality internships can be mutually beneficial for the intern and the employer. They give young people valuable experience to help them in the transition from education to employment, and they offer employers the opportunity to attract a supply of enthusiastic new workers who might be their future full-time employees.

Internships are still a relatively new and unfamiliar part of London’s economy. Groups such as Intern Aware and the National Union of Students have done great work in raising awareness of the issues around internships, particularly access to internships and pay. But to make internships better for young people and businesses more research needs to be done to assess the scale, diversity and quality of internships across the capital.

The Mayor of London Boris Johnson has a role in boosting employment and supporting people into work. He has pushed apprenticeships as one route into employment for young people but so far has done nothing to encourage internships in London, other than some small internship schemes. He now has an opportunity to take a leadership position on internships in London championing the benefits of good quality, paid internships for young people and businesses alike.

Stephen Knight is chairman of the London Assembly’s Economy Committee, in the United Kingdom

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