Page last updated at 18:22 GMT, Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Intern fees 'salt in the wound'

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Job hunting
In a tougher jobs market, internships become a way into careers

Job-hunting university leavers are being warned against paying for services to help get them internships.

A university careers adviser says it is "rubbing salt in the wound" to ask students to pay to find internships for which they will not even be paid.

There are websites charging hundreds of pounds for letters of introduction for internships.

There are warnings the UK could follow the US example where wealthy parents can buy internships for their children.

In a recent charity auction in the UK, work experience in the media was offered alongside a range of showbusiness prizes.

'Fear and doubt'

Alex Try, author of the blog Interns Anonymous, says an industry seems to be growing up around internships - and that a "climate of fear" can stop graduates from talking openly about their experiences.

It's not all a rip-off - it's what you can get out of it. But many people are being taken for a ride. After three months they'll be replaced by another equally well-qualified, unpaid intern
Alex Try, Interns Anonymous

The director of the National Council for Work Experience, Heather Collier, says there is "definitely a problem that needs sorting out" about internships - particularly over when they should really be paid at least the minimum wage.

Students facing a tough jobs market are increasingly worrying not just about getting good degree grades, but also gaining the right work experience.

And there are concerns that instead of opening doors, these stretches of unpaid work could become commodities acquired by more affluent students, enabling them to access the most sought-after jobs.

The director of Oxford University's career service, Jonathan Black, says there has been a growth in companies trying to make money from internships.

They are playing on "fear, uncertainty and doubt", he says.

Mr Black says careers services have been trying to rebuff attempts to sell services to students when careers advisers can arrange internships for them without any charge.

All work and no pay

These services can include charging hundreds of pounds for introductory letters - and Mr Black says he has heard of fees up to £1,000.

Alan Milburn
Alan Milburn's report warned internships blocked social mobility

In particular, Mr Black says it is unfair for vulnerable students who are worried about needing "an extra edge".

And he warns that introducing a financial barrier to getting internships could have a "huge impact on diversity": perpetuating the longstanding lack of social mobility in the UK.

Targeting people wanting to get into industries such as investment banking and financial services, there are offers to write internship applications, re-write CVs, prepare answers and rehearse interviews - with fees of £100 to £250 for each stage of the process.

Katie Dallison, careers adviser at Goldsmiths, University of London, says careers offices are being "contacted frequently by these types of companies".

"I think it's hard enough that students have to work for free, often full time for months.

"Paying for this privilege is really just rubbing salt into the wound. However, realistically, it's very competitive out there and many students will make large sacrifices to gain experience."

Social mobility

A report into social mobility by former cabinet minister Alan Milburn highlighted internships as an obstacle for young people without social connections.

Job applications
Internships have become part of the jobhunting process

The report argued that the networking skills of middle class parents helped them find internships for their children - and they can also afford to keep their children in unpaid work.

There are worries that even though young people might compete on a level playing field in the exam hall, the internship system creates another layer of privilege.

The government has sought to match job-hunters with internships that are available - with a free service called the Graduate Talent Pool.

But Heather Collier of the National Council for Work Experience questions whether some of the unpaid internships on offer might really be seen as jobs.

And on other jobs websites, a quick search for internships finds many requests for full-time, well-qualified staff, who would be expected to work for several months without pay.

A spokesperson for the Business, Innovation and Skills department said: "The government is committed to offering real help to graduates during these difficult economic times and internships are great way for them to get real life work experience to kick start their careers."

'Expendable commodity'

For those who are at the sharp end of internships, there can be mixed feelings.

Alex Try is one of the co-founders of the Interns Anonymous website - which he says was set up to share the experiences of individuals working in companies, sometimes for many months, without being paid.

"It's a really strange phenomenon - it's almost an unspoken understanding that you'll do unpaid work," he says.

Young people in this situation are made to feel like "expendable commodities", he says.

Even though they are working without pay, he says interns are "scared to kick up a fuss... employers are in such a position of power".

"Some internships are good and are passages to decent jobs, but most are unregulated and with no guarantees, based on the assumption that you can work for free and live in London," he says.

"They are actually jobs - working nine to five, not shadowing anyone because no-one else is doing their jobs," he says.

People contacting the blog have claimed that some recession-hit companies are cutting paid staff and replacing them with unpaid interns.

"It's not all a rip-off - it's what you can get out of it. But many people are being taken for a ride.

"After three months they'll be replaced by another equally well-qualified, unpaid intern."

And he says there are horror stories - such as an intern who travelled to a PR job in London from Slough every day at her own expense.

"They dangled the carrot of a job, but at the end of the seven months it disappeared," he said.

To send comments please use the form below.

When I was looking at publishing, i was told at a careers seminar that unpaid internships were the *only* way into the industry. I'm a graduate with only my own income. I can't afford to intern and not work and trying to intern AND work would be ridiculously stressful. I've had to shelve a lifelong ambition because I don't have independent means and a bloody trust fund.
Helen Gallagher, Lancaster

Finally, an article about internships that tells it like it is. I have a 1st degree from Oxford, am not from a typical upper middle class professional background yet I have ended up temporarily working part-time in a local deli as I absolutely reject on moral grounds the idea of working for free and, moreover, I am not in a position to afford it; neither do I entertain the idea of asking my parents for money (I already live at home rent-free and that is more than enough to ask of them). The whole idea of going to uni was to be able to support myself financially in a good job with a good salary when I graduated. The recession, coupled with this free internship culture, has unfortunately put paid to that for me now. If I found a paid internship in a field I was interested in then I would jump at the chance. I refuse to bow to the system yet this is my only other option, the price I am paying for refusing to be taken advantage of. Pride comes at a price but it's an issue on which I refuse to budge. Even new, fresh graduates are worth minimum wage at least!
Polly, London

I'm a recent graduate hoping to start the career ladder, and the only way in to the sorts of jobs I want is through internships, in London. With a cost of £40 travel into London every day, I don't see how I'm meant to be able to do it. I'm increasingly realising that education isn't hindering social mobility, its the entry onto the job market. The only people who can get into these jobs are middle class Londoners, whose parents can support them financially for several months. It's highly exclusive, and totally unfair.
Alison, Sussex

Aldi doesn't have interns stacking shelves and local councils don't have interns filing paperwork. Instead it is the wealthy businesses of Politics, Media, PR and Law who are exploiting all these ambitious young people. Surely its not too much to make it a law that all interns are paid at least the minimum wage. Its not going to cripple any of these businesses but it will certainly make life a little easier for anyone trying to break into one of these vaunted professions.
Iam, Bristol, UK

I applaud Helen Gallagher's comments - everyone affected by this abuse should write or email their MPs. There is an election coming up and all the young people and their parents and relatives have votes and there are many parliamentary seats to be lost or gained. The people whose jobs are being replaced by interns should be demanding that their unions and professional organisations take action. As for those organisations that expect fees for putting people in touch with organisations they should be outlawed - the organisations themselves should pay the fees otherwise it no different than the bribery allegedly rife in other parts of the world. Sadly not only are these practices rife in Westminster I understand that it is also the practice among NGOs who claim to be tacking human rights issues. Young people are not completely powerless on these issues they have energy, electronic communication skills, lots of votes, a common cause and are entitled to a minimum wage and basic human rights.
John, Liverpool

I work in the environmental sector where careers are also sought-after. Since graduating I have done a total of 6 months unpaid work in two different positions, sometimes also working part time in a shop. Both offered me excellent training and experience and I wouldn't currently be in a job I love (with one of the organisations I volunteered for) without that experience. Voluntary working is a necessity to get a job like mine, but it does often REALLY lead to a job, and many long term volunteer posts in my current organisation offer free accommodation. So, I don't doubt some City companies exploit graduates, but others across the country offer valuable training and experience and really care about their volunteer's career progression.
Hannah, Edinburgh

Internships are an insult to hard working, highly qualified and ambitious graduates. Many organisations simply treat interns as a free labour force, exploiting peoples desperation and good will to cut costs. The sad thing is that this is not a new phenomenon the recession has simply given people an excuse to morally justify what is effectively slave labour in their own minds. I know of a large organisation in central London where one quarter of the staff are unpaid interns (around 30 in all) all working full time for a minimum of 6 months (some longer). Some of these interns are in position of significant responsibility coordinating national projects, and nearly all of them are educated to a masters level. This particular organisation uses them as a free labour force and more often than not has no intention of hiring them in paid roles at the end of it. This is cynical exploitation and drastically reduces the chance of gaining entry level roles that actually pay any money.
Will, London

The idea is that opening up universities is the way to social mobility - but it isn't; opening up internships is. The problem which I have faced is not just getting an internship or work experience but paying bills while one does the work. How are self-funded or low income family students to enter fields like law and journalism (two examples I know of) where stints at unpaid internships are an unofficial prerequisite for a career? It's all well and good getting into university but if you cannot use your degree and follow you chosen career path, one must ask what is the point?
Katie, United Kingdom

This is the thin end of a very nasty wedge and must be stopped. Work for free ? What sort of insult is that.
Graham, Cambridge

It is clear to me that these internships are just another form of exploitation. The fact that some companies are charging vulnerable students hundreds of pounds just to get them an unpaid internship is a disgrace. If internships were all short-term, regulated, and more effective then it wouldn't be so bad but really the interns are just getting exploited and are being used to undercut paid staff who are subsequently laid off. It's a disgrace.
Ian Nelson, Holmfirth, West Yorkshire

Thank you BBC for reporting on the important issues graduates are facing when looking for work. I have a Masters in Environmental Management and have been looking for work in the environment sector for many months, with no success. I have even been turned down from unpaid internships. It seems that many of the organisations I want to work for would require me to work in an unpaid internship position before any paid employment could be arranged. Even after gaining many volunteer placements and spending four years at university I cannot get work because of 'lack of experience'. This internship culture is extremely demoralising for young people looking for work, because those who are lucky enough to get an internship often have no guarantee of paid employment at the end. It's disgraceful that companies are profiting from graduates in this way. I believe that graduates should be paid at least minimum wage. How else are we supposed to live on nothing unless we can get financial support from elsewhere?
Peter, Solihull

The significant increase in unpaid internships, particularly where there would be any abuse by unscrupulous employers and unethical nepotism by employees in position of influence, does bring the following into disrepute: attending any British university for career progression; social mobility in Britain; British business; areas of British economy responsible for ensuring the health of its GDP; and above all avoiding Britain's brain drain.
Col, Dorking

In law and journalism, at least, the internships are usually no more than a week at a time; and you'll usually be doing them during your studies if you're sufficiently switched on! More worrying is the trend in PR/advertising where these can last for months. The question is what can really be done about it? As an employer you're going to jump at the chance of having a free worker for 6 months; not only as a money saver short term but to gauge someone's potential over more than a couple of interview days. If regs are put in place to stop these companies offering long unpaid internships there's nothing to stop a rich dad just approaching the company direct and offering their graduate daughter as free labour...
Charlie, Twickenham, London

After university, students are expected to get good grades, interview for jobs and then start their career but the need for experience is so hard nowadays. Part of me is wondering if I had the correct work experience I could have started my career on the right foot.
Ian , UK

The fact that an industry has grown up offering this service is a sign that degrees are so common place, employers now need a more advanced method of selecting potential employees. More emphasis should be placed on making sure that students get this necessary work experience at school and during university. This is a service that the university careers office should be offering.
Richard, Plymouth

This also happens in other countries. A dear friend from France stayed two and a half months with us, interning in our business. We absolutely refused to allow her to pay anything for her stay, but wouldn't let us pay her either! we gave her a Mentor, training etc. Her friends in France all had to pay their own way and not receive a salary. I was appalled for her, appalled when I read the same occurs in politics here too and appalled this hidden 'slave labour' as 'work experience'. Why isn't the full weight of employment law brought to bear? These highly qualified, intelligent people deserve a decent rate of pay and decent working conditions. It's an absolute disgrace they are being held to ransom for having aspirations and a desire to learn. Students are already saddled by huge debt I think there should be an internship allowance which should include assistance with travel and accommodation. Education should be for all, not dependent on the wealth or connections of a family. An appalling state of affairs that should be addressed immediately-these young people are our future-how dare they be treated this way!
Jen Ballington-James, Folkestone

Westminster itself is amongst the worst offenders when it comes to exploiting unpaid interns; MPs have generous office allowances but more often then not use a steady stream of unpaid interns to staff their parliamentary offices. This is exploitative of young people, but also ensures that work experience in our country's parliament is reserved for privileged middleclass young people whose parents can pay for them to live and work in London for no pay. It is ironic that MPs complain about being paid 'peanuts' when the often don't pay their young interns at all!
Adam, London

The nasty side to this is how many employers (especially in the media area) are using unpaid interns in place of paid employees. I know this for a fact as I have a friend who is an experienced film/tv cameraman and he is finding that many assignments are being filed with unpaid graduate interns. Their view is why pay when you can get it for free.
Cheryl, London

I graduate next year all being well but much like what is said above it seems that it is the same old story of who you know and not what you know. Why doesn't someone in politics really sort out this lack of social mobility instead of just ignoring the problem. Maybe this country might reach its potential if it let the brightest and hardest working people take the jobs they rightly deserve. I'm sick of hearing wealthy people with contacts always landing on their feet!
Ben, Leicester

This is a situation that calls urgently for new legislation. Seeing how popular passing new legislation is with the current administration, if they gave a hoot about it, it would have been done. Only registered charities should be allowed to offer unpaid internships. All others should be obliged to pay at least minimum wage and follow all other employment law, as if the intern were employed there. Perhaps this is also an opportunity for trade unions to show their credentials, by offering free membership to unpaid interns.
Dom O, Norfolk, UK

As an aspiring barrister I spent two whole summers undertaking mini-pupillages (unpaid work experience) during the daytime and my evenings and nights working as an auxilliary in an old people's home to support my work experience. It was an extremely challenging and rewarding experience and I consider myself very lucky to have had both opportunities. I am very grateful to all the barristers who were willing to have me tag around after them and to my patients whose enthusiasm and encouragement kept me going and who loved to hear the stories of the cases I had been involved in. It also meant that I had no illusions as to the difficulties I would face in entering the profession and was far better informed than rival candidates when it come to interviews.
S George, London

Unfortunately I've had to shelve my career plans in the legal profession as I can't afford to do more unpaid internships to get experience. I currently support myself and don't have the benefit of parents to support me. I am missing out on jobs because graduates who can work for free are considered better candidates. Think of it this way, why pay £15,000pa when you can get away with nothing? The intern still charges out at £100ph for the firm (whether you pay them or not) and you don't have any wages to pay out!
Katie, Cheshire

I am in the unfortunate position where internships in the field I want to go into are invariably unpaid and nearly all of them in London.

When you're 16 unpaid work is reasonable because you are only shadowing somebody for a week or two and are not given responsibility and therefore you don't earn the wage.

But graduate internships for a period of several months or a year carry the same responsibilities as a paid job. The application process is the same as well, you just don't get a salary at the end of it.

Unfortunately, businesses and organisations in London can get away with this exploitation because they have a large enough recruiting pool from students who already live there-and have higher support from the Student Loans Company-while the rest of us have to fork out for our own accommodation or extortionate train prices, but we don't have the means of doing so. The government keeps talking about their "creation" of internship opportunities in the hard times of the recession but the reality for I and many friends, is that if you're outside London you are in between a rock and a hard place. The only realistic option for me is to move into opportunities I have abroad. How many talented graduates is the government going to lose for the future with this situation?
Matt, Manchester

I was asked to move from Paris to London for an internship, at the end of which I was assured a job. I paid for all my things to be shipped over, broke my lease, found a new place in London and left my friends back in Paris for a disaster. They had me working insane hours and kicked up when I got the swine flu, and didn't even offer me money to get home when my wallet was stolen. They asked me to pick up a printing bill of £300, saying they would 'pay me back'. They then said they no longer needed me giving me no notice to find something else. I'm still waiting on the money and have had to contact a lawyer to engage with them. Be very careful when choosing an internship that they don't completely take advantage of you!
Cina, London

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