Unpaid Internships Are Bad For Young People

Internships are becoming essential for access to many professions. Because a high number are unpaid and unaffordable to those from ordinary backgrounds, social mobility is being harmed. As youth unemployment races past the 1 million mark, young people are facing an increasingly difficult task getting a first foot on the career ladder. With competition for jobs growing, barriers to the labour market are increasing, with jobseekers expected to have months, even years, of professional experience under their belts before they can even think about applying for entry-level positions.

“Employers know they can get away without paying interns a thing because graduates ‘need’ the experience, and as a result employers expect someone starting an entry level job to know everything on their first day. In the past graduates were employed for their potential, and their ability to learn quickly, not proof on their CV that they can hit the ground running.”
- Sarah, 21, Intern Aware 2012 Survey

The high demand for work experience, coupled with tightening budgets and a shortage of graduate jobs, has created a dangerous race to rock bottom. Young people leaving full time education are expected in many sectors to work for free, often indefinitely. There is a growing consensus that this is illegal, whilst powerful evidence suggests that it damages social mobility as those from low-income backgrounds are excluded from the opportunities they deserve.

Statistics from a survey on internship quality conducted by the European Youth Forum paint a depressing picture. Just over half of all interns surveyed (51%) had been paid at all, and 41% of those who were compensated found that the remuneration level was insufficient to cover their day-to-day expenses. In total then only 25% of the interns surveyed were able to make ends meet with the compensation they were entitled to, with the vast majority (65%) relying on financial assistance from the bank of mum and dad.

That 3 out of every 4 interns are insufficiently compensated for the work they do suggests that non-payment of interns is a systemic problem rather than just a small number of rogue employers trying to cut costs. More worrying still is that the same number (75%) of internships are underwritten by an official written contract of employment, confirming that unpaid internships have become an accepted practice across all sectors and, hitherto, have come under little to no legal pressure whatsoever.

These statistics matter. Not only are unpaid internships damaging for young people, but they are also damaging for society, creating closed circles of privilege in the professions and hurting social mobility, and for businesses, limiting the pool of skills and talent from which they recruit. That is why Intern Aware is calling for fair access to the internship market by ensuring that all interns are paid, at least, the national minimum wage.