“There’s Work to be Had”: Why, Despite Problems of Low Pay, Internships are a Valuable Experience

Tory Gillespie accepts that intern pay must be addressed, but suggests they are too valuable an experience to sit back and wait for change.

HMRC are to investigate intern pay, with some sources suggesting many interns are being paid too little. With that in mind, what chances do young people have in today’s competitive job market?

The legal framework governing the employment status of interns is surprisingly simple. Unfortunately, it is also very simple for employers to misuse the increasingly desperate young people, too eager for work to refuse. Whether or not an intern gets paid depends on their employment status – if you are undertaking actual work, the employer must pay National Minimum Wage. If, however, you are just shadowing someone else as they work, they do not. This either results in poor quality internships, with interns being allowed to do very little, or interns on minimum wage being given a work load that would be equivalent to that of a ‘real’ employee.

Any company wanting to ‘justify their expense’ in this way is permitted to do so under the current system. Although most young people cannot afford to do unpaid work, some can, and they skew the system, giving employers free labour and creating a culture that expects young people to work for nothing. This is extremely prevalent in the most popular industries: media, fashion, archaeology and law.

Having worked in film and television for the past six years, I can tell you that it is not an industry filled with creative geniuses, but charming idiots with rich parents. As a runner in Post-Production, you cannot receive minimum wage and manage to live in Central London (an unofficial requirement, due to anti-social working hours) without getting financial help from somewhere, usually a wealthy family. Apart from being unfair, this creates an entire industry run by privilege.

So what can we do about it? Intern Aware is an organisation that aims to report and highlight cases of abuse of interns. This is a positive step, but it is not enough if we can’t even afford to do the internship in the first place. The good news is that there are good quality, paid internships out there, particularly for science and technology jobs, but competition is fierce. Do a lot of research, apply early and put time into your application. Where an internship cannot be found, suggest one.

Find a company you’d like to work for – the smaller, the better – and write to them explaining why you could be very useful for them. Small companies are usually crying out for an extra pair of hands, but can’t afford the time or money to recruit on a temporary basis. As with anything, start early. Don’t wait until you graduate. Get applying now, even if it only gets you a few days shadowing over Christmas. If you really don’t have the time until you’ve finished studying, get the best-paid job you can find and do it for a year, using every week of paid holiday you get doing whatever work experience or internship you can find.

Refusing to work for free won’t solve anything as long as there are more interns than there are internships. There will always be someone willing to undercut. Legislation is the only way to solve this crisis, but it doesn’t mean you have to sit back and wait for it to happen. There’s work to be had, so let’s have it.


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