Employer

If the 44k student debt wasn’t enough, then the unpaid internship will sure aid the bleak millennial dream of not affording rent. Politicians, landlords, and the economy have been unkind to young people who are already the first generation to be poorer than their parents; encumbered with debt, locked out of buying a home, rising living costs, stagnant wages, and further economic uncertainty in their wake.

It never needed to be so, it was an accumulation of bad and selfish choices, and young people are bearing the burden. Now employers also face a choice that can shape the reality for young people and society – Will you pay your intern?

A quick search for internships on Indeed takes me to a job post by a London-based employer – Let’s call him Jim. Among a thorough 15 point list of required skills, including leadership and management, sales and presentation skills, Jim also asks for a graduate degree, and a baffling 2 years of experience, for 6 months, full-time… expenses only. As detailed as the requirements may stand, Jim still forgot a few key essentials: rich parents, independent income, and access to free accommodation. The novelty of ‘expenses’ only covering a lunch and travel within a limited zone radius is a farce when the expenses of London living will actually cost you £5,500 for 6 months – You don’t have to be Will Hunting to work that out. Conclusion: Jim exploits young graduates to save himself some money. Jim is a bad employer, don’t be like Jim.

But Jim is no lone leech, The IPPR think-tank estimates that internships have grown by up to 50% since 2010, with approximately 70,000 internships on offer a year. The 2008 recession triggered a dramatic fall in job opportunities, and the oversaturation of graduates meant companies were able to employ high-skilled workers for low-paid, insecure jobs, in the shape of internships.

Now with the economy recovering, internships have remained a permanent part of the job market, having replaced a proportion of paid graduate entry-level roles, which have declined by 5%. Feeding on the desperate situation of youth unemployment leaves a funny distrust on the employer.

These internships often offer little learning opportunities with bad working conditions, but surpass the exploitative nature, unpaid internships are a bane on social mobility. It’s a limited view to believe that the difference between working for free or not, is a choice by laziness, because for many, it’s not a choice at all. It’s the age-old, echoed vicious cycle when you first start your journey – You need experience, but no one will give you experience, because you have no experience – That’s the real circle of life.

And it means internships are an essential way to getting your foot through the door – a door shut to those who can’t afford to work for free. As necessary as internships have become for new careers, it doesn’t replace the real bare necessities – you can’t eat it, and it’s not a roof over your head – not after 5pm at least. The soar in unpaid internships has given rise to yet more inequality, as they serve as a filter system that effectively discriminates on the basis of wealth.

But It’s not all about flying the altruistic flag of equality, this is an unjust waste of talent from the much-needed voices of the working class. Unpaid internships could well be the curse of fields that hold a higher concentration of unpaid internships such as film, media, publishing and journalism. The lack of diversity in these outlets have a broader influence on society altogether as they predominantly reflect the thoughts, ideas and priorities of the more privileged.

By law, if someone works set hours, does set tasks and contributes value to an organisation, then they are a worker and entitled to the minimum wage. For this, unpaid internships should be illegal under current law, but until the government gets serious on the matter, the system will remain rigged by greedy employers. With the class gap widening, employers have a choice, do you want to fly the helicopter and cut the ladder, or do you want to crusade a team of diverse talent?

Pay your interns fairly, and in turn you will reap the rewards with:

  1. Better quality candidates.
  2. Eliminating the risk of being sued – it’s happened.
  3. A diverse workforce – that’s actually a benefit, not a mere platitude.
  4. Stronger employer branding.

About Xuan Minh Hoang

Account Executive at Link Humans, London's employer branding agency.

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