Deputy Features Editor, Hannah Comiskey, discusses how unpaid internships favour the rich and disadvantage the poor.
The number of people relying on internships as a stepping-stone in their career path is on the rise. And with a greater number of higher education students than ever before, a University degree alone is no longer enough to make your job application stand out.
Amongst the rows of A’s and degree classifications, prospective job candidates are also expected to have their glimmering CV’s sprinkled with lavish extracurricular achievements, committee positions and relevant experience in the field. The student summer tales of working behind a bar or mindlessly bleeping shopping through a checkout-till now lie in the shadows of a 21st century internship obsession. And with the percentage of college graduates with internships having grown from 10% in 1980’s to around 80% in the mid 2000’s, they are being increasingly viewed by employers as a prerequisite to a job offer.
The most prized internships at esteemed, CV-bolstering companies have become a battleground for modern day students. Competition is fierce, and the stakes of getting an acclaimed ‘foot in the door’ are high. But with demand for these internships well outstripping the supply, the desire to obtain a placement has overridden any notion of adequate compensation or equality of opportunities.
Faced with a sea of eager and well-educated students, employers are taking advantage of this internship desperation to conscript an unpaid cohort of workers, disguised as interns. And with 70% of internships being unpaid, the undoubted benefits of internship work experience – networking, experience, and feedback – become reserved only for those students who can afford to work for free.
Those unable to lean on the bank of Mum and Dad to pay rent, tuition fees, heating bills or fund student experiences cannot afford the luxury of a summer which pays in a sparkling new addition to your CV, rather than cash. As a result, amongst the internship population as a whole, inequality is rife. With a shocking 57% fewer working-class interns than the graduate population within financial services, 34% fewer in the legal sector and 37% in Marketing & PR. Even if transport costs are provided, a 2019 Sutton Trust further revealed that unpaid internships in London in fact cost interns over £1000 per month. And with over half of unpaid internships lasting over 4 weeks, with some stretching as far as 6 months, these ‘opportunities’ are sowing the seeds for social segregation one placement at a time. Standing as stepping stones which keep you afloat only if you, or your family, can afford it.
When it comes to future internship opportunities, those with previous, relevant internship experience are then favoured. With many employers choosing to champion those candidates handed their assortment of unpaid internships on a silver platter, over the grit and determination of a working class student spending that same time earning money to self-fund their own studies. Viewing unpaid internships as an essential demonstration of work ethic and interest in the industry, rather than a sign of privilege. The result is a vicious internship cycle, which has denatured what should be opportunities to learn, and instead transformed them into yet another classist mechanism promoting only the most privileged.
As students, especially in current pandemic times, we are grasping at any opportunity we can to glitz up our CVs, stand out, and get ahead in the increasingly cut-throat career game. But when it comes to unpaid internships, we must confront the fact that we are using our own privilege to do just that. What may be presented as opportunities to you if your parents still pay your rent and buy your clothes at age 22, are, in fact, barriers to those without the means to spend those internship weeks not earning money. And with the 2019 Sutton Trust report revealing that 86% of internships within the Arts are unpaid,this leaves desperately slim pickings for those funding their own education.
We cannot continue to ignore the fact that unpaid internships are selectively opening or closing doors on the basis of class, status, and connections rather than potential or talent.
In making unpaid internships commonplace, particularly within the creative industries, we are draining diversity just where it should be valued the most. With this alienation of large proportions of the population coming at a loss to the whole sector’s creativity, as Mckinsey & Co. further highlight in their finding that the firms with greatest diversity are more likely to have higher than average returns.
Ultimately, diversity is a good thing. Iit encourages innovation, creativity and forward-thinking approaches. It ensures that the work forces within everything from the big corporations boosting our economy, to the journalists telling our stories of the world, and the politicians running our countries are reflective of the wider population. Yet when the only ladder into these careers requires undertaking unpaid entry level internships as the exclusive first few steps, many young, creative minds are never given a chance to start climbing.
What’s more, with almost half of Britain’s Black families living in poverty, compared to 20% of white families, the barriers that unpaid internships are placing on social mobility and accessibility to job opportunities are disproportionately impacting BAME individuals. Contributing to a staggering lack of ethnic diversity in high-end offices across the country. Within British journalism, journalists are more likely to have attended private school, be from higher socio-economic backgrounds and are 94% white. This is despite the fact that journalism is centred in London, where BAME individuals make up 40% of London’s workforce. Similarly, the Creative Industries Federation found that BAME individuals should proportionally make up nearly 20% of London’s creative industries employees, yet instead make up just over 10%. This lack of ethnic diversity within industries such as journalism and media, are rooted in unpaid internships. And the reality that BAME students are less likely to be able to rely on family funds, compared to their white counterparts, in order to finance such luxuries. Unpaid internships have become a career ladder entry fee which exacerbates poverty cycles within the UK. And based on the demographics of those financially stable enough to embark on a career kick-started by unpaid work, what prevails at the top is a uniform force of white, middle-class, and like-minded parrots, all with similar views and similar back stories of wealth.
In recent decades we have undoubtedly seen positive increases in diversity stretching across race, economic status and gender in career sectors such as law, politics, and journalism. However, until we fully confront the issue of unpaid internships, they will remain a rigid social barrier to talented but under-privileged individuals hoping to kickstart their careers within the most competitive fields.
In politics specifically, this lack of accessibility is alarming. In 2018, a posting on the Commons website for a six-month unpaid MP’s intern position described the opportunity as ‘ideal’ for someone looking to begin a career in politics or policy. This draws into question what kind of person our political system is choosing for future generations of politicians. And more importantly, why we are allowing our future policymakers and politicians to be systematically favoured if the idea of not earning money for six months of work is ‘ideal’, never mind feasible. With Tony Blair’s office revealed to be a frequent user of unpaid interns for up to three months at a time, this is not an issue we can play the elitist blame game with. Even Treasury Minister David Gauke, who advertised for a six-month ‘voluntary’ internship in 2013, was made Secretary of State for Justice in 2018 in Theresa May’s cabinet. Standing as an ironic yet fitting twist of fate, given the prominent acceptability of unpaid internships within politics even today. With figures as recent as 2018 revealing that a third of staffers working for MPs or in parliament positions were unpaid, including 36% for Labour and 28% for Conservatives offices.
Much like law and financial services, positions within Westminster are also deeply characterized by access via personal connections, with only 50% of staffers revealing they had found their current role via public advertisement. More concerningly, on a wider scale up to 84% of internships were found to be unadvertised and obtained via informal networks in 2017. Leaving working-class students hampered yet again both by a lack of funds and connections to compete with their middle-class counterparts, who utilise both as their back-door ticket into the most competitive industries.
As it stands, unpaid internships are creating more barriers than they are genuine opportunities for gaining employment in Westminster and beyond. With the prevailing ‘who you know not what you know’ mentality of many employers excluding large swathes of potentially more deserving working class candidates, who could provide fresh perspectives on these systems pervaded by classism.
We cannot risk losing the next vaccine scientist, trailblazing journalist, or innovative political leader to a different career path, simply because they were locked out of an industry that required them to be able to afford to work for free. With widespread reform to laws, advertisement, and attitudes desperately needed to address the unpaid internship epidemic currently sweeping the UK. As we navigate through the pandemic world, innovation and diversified outlooks will become a necessary tool for ensuring the UK remains afloat. And the creativity lost to social segregation is no longer a price we can afford to continue paying.