This summer I began my fifth semester as an intern. As an undergraduate, in the UK it is legal for companies to offer me an unpaid internship. It’s a practice that feels old fashioned, but that doesn’t stop it from happening.
Last week, I met an old friend I hadn’t seen for two years. After a brief “hi” and a couple of “what are you up to?”, he cut to the chase: “Is your internship paid?” I answered honestly, and I saw something in his eyes that resembled a kind of smug gratification. He was an out-of-work graduate, but at least he wasn’t working for free. I was reminded of why we hadn’t kept in touch. The encounter left me feeling a need to justify my choice, as though working for free is something sordid.
I walked home, listing the good elements of this unpaid internship: good experience in this field, I like the people I work with, I am interested in entering that industry in the long-term, I appreciate the generosity of the person who gave me the internship, I have been complimented on my work and it is a place I feel comfortable. I reminded myself to feel grateful.
But to an extent, an emphasis on gratitude to the company that gave you the opportunity is exactly what prevents us from being paid. Much of the justification for not paying interns seems to come from the argument that employers are providing young people with much-needed experience and training.
Consider this: the training only extends to the first few weeks of an internship. If you are not capable of working productively for the company why would they take you on? Anyone working in a company as a member of paid staff is gaining experience every day and yet they are not sacrificing salary. I am aware that interns are often the least qualified people in the company, but that does not detract from the fact that they are still doing a job.
Unpaid and unadvertised internships benefit a small selection of the young workforce. They benefit those of us who can afford to work for free. They benefit those members of society with contacts in desirable industries. They do not make for a level playing field. Companies remain unaccountable, students and young people put-in to an economy that does not return the favour. It’s a system that’s out-of-date, and yet it’s alive and kicking.
Phoebe Ellis-Rees, student arts and culture