Paying interns – why does it even matter?

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A recent poll conducted by Step found that 41% of respondents believe work experience is the most important asset in being able to secure a graduate job. So if a company is willing to offer this valuable experience and a young person is willing to complete the work and not get paid then everyone’s a winner, right?! Wrong. Here are some of the reasons why.

The social mobility argument

How many people do you know who can afford to undertake a full time job for twelve weeks or more without being paid? Undoubtedly there are people whose family and financial position allow them to work unpaid but shouldn’t everyone have the same opportunity to gain work experience and secure a good career? The culture of unpaid internships contributes to huge amounts of inequality cutting off certain careers to many people.

The legal argument

There is no legal definition of an internship and so it follows that interns must be treated as workers. As such they are protected by Minimum Wage legislation. If a company doesn’t pay their interns, they run the risk of a heavy fine, not to mention the bad publicity. There are some exemptions, school age people undertaking work experience, volunteers working for a charity, placements undertaken as part of a course of study and work shadowing where no work is being carried out. The majority of internships offer meaningful work experience and allow valuable projects to be completed for the businesses hosting them. It’s highly unlikely that an internship would fall under the work shadowing exemption so this should be relied upon with caution.

Fair pay for a fair day’s work

Paying people for the contribution they make to your business is the right thing to do. There are some businesses who seem to rely on unpaid interns to carry out core business functions. Occasionally these businesses are gracious enough to offer a good reference at the end of the experience, as if that is somehow fair reward for up to 40 hours per week hard graft. That doesn’t sound fair to me. Young people deserve to feel valued in the work place, their first experience of work will set the tone for their future career and we have a duty to ensure that it is as positive as possible.

So, young people, please don’t feel the need to offer your services for nothing, you deserve better! And employers, before accepting an intern’s services for free please consider the moral, legal and social mobility reasons for paying them.

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