Interns: the modern slaves?

Many of you, such as myself, will have been looking to fill the overlong summer break with some sort of meaningful activity.

Overlong? Yes. In the “old days” children and young people spent the summer in the fields helping to gather in the harvest. With the advent of mechanised agriculture there is no need for us all to spend the summer cutting sheaves of wheat by hand. That’s what the machines are for.


The tea run is a large part of the dreary reality of the intern’s life. Photo: Mike Hodges

So there’s about three months of time just begging to be put to good use. What are the options? Well you could take an extended holiday, perhaps backpacking across South America or Europe. You might get a summer job to boost your depleted finances. Maybe you’d just like to spend the summer lazing around and doing nothing in particular. Or you could try to get an internship. Boosting your knowledge of your chosen field and adding some serious content to your curriculum vitae.

Internships seem to be pretty much the flavour of the month. The government has even got its own website to aid you in your search for an internship. But is an internship all its cracked up to be?

Now I truly believe that there is a real difference between work experience and an internship. Work experience is a chance for a person, usually of school age, to visit a workplace and observe what goes on. They might get a chance to get their hands dirty, but it’s primarily an opportunity to learn, not to do.

Internships are a different kettle of fish. As an intern you’re expected to actually do meaningful and productive work. Some examples I have gleaned from a cursory search of the net include graphic designer, project manager, business development manager, and even editorial assistant. All of those posts are advertised as unpaid. Not even the offer of paying expenses is made for these positions.

The issue of payment is a thorny one. The government’s own website states: “Employers should also make sure that any internship they offer complies with the law on minimum wages. If an intern is effectively performing as a ‘worker’, then in most cases they will be entitled to the national minimum wage.”

You can also get more details from this document provided by the Department for Business Innovation & Skills. It all boils down to the simple fact that if you are working for a commercial organisation then you should be rewarded, either monetarily or through benefit in kind.

I have looked at, and applied for, a number of internships myself. At most they have offered to pay expenses. Most of them have offered no financial reward at all. Yet they all seem to promise the chance to work hard on behalf of somebody else. The employer gets to benefit from your efforts whilst you enjoy the dubious privilege of an entry on your CV. That doesn’t really strike me as being fair.

My other concern is that these internships are replacing the jobs that graduates used to aim for as their first step on the career ladder. With a plentiful supply of under and post graduates desperate to get some work related experience onto their CVs it seems to make getting that all important first job that much harder.

The intern would appear to be the modern slave. Expected to work for little or nothing and to be grateful for the privilege, but for how long can that be tolerated?

5 Responses to Interns: the modern slaves?

  1. Trudie Reid says:

    My 14 year old son recently did work experience arranged through school: 2 weeks of 40 hours spent stacking shelves at an express store of a well known supermarket. That’s hard graft; not learning! At 14, he would only be allowed to do a maximum of 5 hours per day if it was a proper, paid job during the school holidays.

    Work experience and internships are both just a method for companies to exploit young people for cheap labour; whilst pretending to do them a favour!

  2. Joe Hicks says:

    I agree; unpaid work experience can be a very good way to enrich your CV, learn new skills and experience a specific area of industry… However, the sad fact is this is often exploited.

    In my opinion, paid intern-ships should be demanded; there’s a big enough number of those looking for something along these lines, and if they stood back and looked at the big picture I’m sure some serious changes could happen…

    I recently learned of the ‘Lindum Scholarship’ being offered by the contractors of the new Business and Law faculty building, presumably to students of the faculty; it’s basically a 1 year intern-ship for 1 student per year – I’ll be interested to see the progression of specifics – hopefully this will be of the paid kind.

  3. Mike Hodges says:

    Trudie – I can sympathise with your comments re work experience for school children. My own experiences in the workplace would indicate that often when a child is brought into a department no preparation has been made to meet their needs. That inevitably means the child is left to twiddle their thumbs while staff get on with their own work. If the visiting child is lucky somebody might give them a drudge job to do that requires no supervision or outlay of resources. Makes the whole exercise pretty pointless.

    Joe – I think that we are only going to see more of these internships in the future. Organisations of all kinds are being squeezed economically and that means any resource that can seen as “free” will be exploited to the hilt. A great pity as the devaluing of new graduates can only make it harder for them to find real jobs.

    Thanks to both of you for reading my blog.

  4. Trudie Reid says:

    It was the school/organisers who placed my son in a situation with such limited opportunities for learning.

    The people at the store treated my son fairly. Stocking the shelves and keeping them tidy was a large part of the work at the express store. When there were large deliveries, the manager stacked shelves with everyone else.

    However, would a “grown up” working 80 hours for no payment (outside of charity work) be seen as acceptable?

    The answer is “no”.

    Society routinely undervalues young people. Which is wrong!

  5. Mike Hodges says:

    Work experience is, perhaps was, meant to act as a taster to the young. Something to whet their appetites for the world of work. What you describe would put anyone off working for life.