As we all well know, the employment stats are at an all-time high and this is no different for graduates. 82% of all graduates of working age are in employment.  Only 5% of recent young graduates (graduated in last 5 years between the age of 21-30) are unemployed. But as with all these statistics, drill down and you unearth a problem which does require attention.   Nearly half of recent graduates are employed in non- graduate roles (49% in 2017 compared to 41% in 2009).

Internships are an excellent way for graduates, new entrants to the job market and career changers to break in to a specialist industry. A good quality, project-based, outcome focused internship which is for a limited time usually between 12 weeks and 12 months, affords the intern invaluable exposure to their new industry. They can gain experience, make connections and build on the academic skills that they have invested in whilst in education. But unfortunately many under-represented young people are missing out.  Care leavers, people from disadvantaged backgrounds and those without the social capital to make connections are unable to access these valuable employment opportunities.

So why is it in 2019, that so many of these invaluable opportunities are open only to those who know the right people and can afford to work for little or no money? There is a huge misconception amongst some employers that an internship is in some way a different legal vehicle to an employment contract. And because employers believe this to be true, they believe that they do not in fact have to pay their interns. 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.

Paying people for the contribution they make to a 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.

As long as businesses continue to accept offers from people to work for free and as long as minimum wage legislation is not enforced against the unscrupulous companies actively offering unpaid internships, young people who cannot afford to work for nothing will continue to miss out.

Tamsin Millns is the Owner / Director of Step who have been offering paid internships for over 30 years. She has worked in the recruitment sector for 20 years and is passionate about maximising the potential of all graduates and developing talent pipelines for smaller businesses who cannot compete against corporate graduate schemes.