Unpaid internships: A hinderence to social mobility, or a necessary evil of today’s world?
Normally, Tatler magazine wouldn’t cross my radar, I know it exists, and tends to have high fashion shots of fairly attractive women in nice gowns, but haven’t paid it much heed (or indeed, paid for a copy!). Although an article in today’s Times by Sathnam Sanghera (“Getting off on the right foot – if Daddy’s rich enough” ) brought an article in this month’s edition to my attention.
The piece entitled “The Interns: Never have so many battled to get coffee for so few” highlights the apparent trend of rich socialites, epitomised (apparently) by The Hills star Whitney Port, who was an intern with Teen Vogue (spot the Condé Nast nepotism) and seemed, according the article, to spend ‘most of her time in the fashion cupboard wondering which Hollywood party to go to” This wonderfully vacuous caricature is then backed up in the article by real life (or rather as close as it gets in the world of the rich and pretty) examples of young rich things who seemed to do nothing during internships with various fashion houses; and waste what may have been a superb opportunity for someone who would kill for the opportunity to work with Jimmy Choo, or Armanni and work damn hard while they are there.
While this whole article may be nothing short of a reductio ad absurdum it still highlights a serious problem which faces many graduates and others looking to break into a particular industry. In many industries including, but by no means being limited to, fashion, journalism, PR and Parliamentary research/casework/general bag carrying, the only way to even have a hope of getting anywhere is through gaining experience through unpaid internships.
This immediately presents those who can’t afford to take the temporary loss of income that one of these internships would require with a problem. I recently took a weeks unpaid work experience with a local Newspaper in Croydon, and while, I learnt a hell of a lot and even got a byline story out of the deal, for which I’m grateful; I still had to take a weeks holiday from my distinctly less glamorous paying job. I’m just one example of a vast number of recent graduates that, while they have the talent to make such an internship go a very long way, simply don’t have the income in order to fund themselves for a week, a month, or even longer.
This hasn’t escaped the notice of the University Minister David “Two Brains” Willets who promised that the government would look into it as an issue lest, in Sanghera’s words ‘the country will soon be run by guffawing buck-tooth toffs’ and while rather unfair in the upper middle classes, he does have a point. One has to ask, what can the government actually do?
The most obvious idea might be to ban unpaid internships, and force businesses to pay a reasonable wage for the work done. Despite sounding as nice to someone in my position as the £7.00ph living wage promised by Ed Milliband, it would be equally as catastrophic. It would, instead of increasing take-up of internships of those of high ability and low income would force businesses to cut the number of internships, many choosing not to offer them at all, not being able to afford the cost of what is essentially a temporary employee.
Another position might be to leave the system as it is, for if one wants something badly enough, and is enterprising enough they will go for a position regardless. A key example of this is Chris Gardener, the protagonist of true story The Pursuit of Happiness . While some may have the drive to succeed we don’t live in a purely Libertarian state, and a purely Libertarian solution can’t work in our present system since, on a basic level, the Governement has a duty of care to it’s citizens and leaving them completely out in the cold isn’t the solution.
Perhaps the best course of action might be if the government were to expand such schemes as the Graduate Talent Pool and offer financial incentives to businesses to take on graduates who want to break into an industry, and can’t afford to take an unpaid internship, while giving the candidate the support they may need to keep a roof over their head. Yet can the government afford this?
Sufficed to say this isn’t a problem with a clear solution, and it can’t be solved in one blogpost. Out of the three solutions advocated however, the least worst is probably the third one. As ever comments welcome.