For many young people, an internship is an essential first rung on the professional ladder. This is especially the case in the most sought-after professions, such as the arts, fashion, media and politics. However, many internships are unpaid, unadvertised, or both – locking out young people without resources or connections. Rebecca Montacute summarises the latest Sutton Trust research on internships and social mobility.

During my PhD, I had the opportunity to do a three-month, openly advertised and fully paid internship– an experience I couldn’t have afforded to do unpaid, and which I wouldn’t have had the personal connections to secure informally. My own internship gave me invaluable experience at the start of my career. However, many other young people don’t get this chance. Too many internships are unpaid, and so are inaccessible to young people who can’t afford the high costs of working for free. Internships are also too often unadvertised, locking out anyone who doesn’t have the connections to secure a placement informally.

The term internship is used to describe a huge variety of work placements. However, research suggests that for most interns, the role involves doing real work for their organisations. Most interns are also expected to be highly educated, giving internships much more in common with early career jobs, rather than traditional work experience or training. There are no official figures on the number of interns in the UK, the government’s most recent estimate (from 2010) is that there are 70,000 interns in the UK at any one time. Despite most interns doing real work, over 40% of young people who have carried out an internship have done at least one of them unpaid. Analysis carried out by the Sutton Trust estimates that of the 10,000 graduates who are in internships 6 months after graduation, 20% are unpaid. Despite the increasing perception that they are necessary for progress in many industries, the career benefits are far from guaranteed. In fact, some research indicates that working unpaid comes with a subsequent pay penalty rather than a pay boost for most – and the internships which do pay off are more likely to be dominated by the most privileged young people.

Many of the unpaid internships which are taking place are illegal. If the work an intern does is of value to their employer, and they have set hours and responsibilities, they are likely to qualify as an employee under UK law. Despite this, unpaid internships continue to be advertised. Interns can report their employers, but as they’re relying on their placement to break into an industry, it’s unlikely many will risk losing access to references and contacts they’ve worked unpaid to build. The current law is not working to protect interns – at the end of 2017 the government confirmed that at that point in time there had been no recorded prosecutions in relation to interns and the National Minimum Wage.

Most internships are in London, where it will cost an intern £1,019 per month to work unpaid – and that’s if travel costs are covered by their employer. Even in a more affordable city like Manchester, working unpaid still costs an intern £827 per month excluding transport. For many young people without savings or parents who can afford to support them, working unpaid is not an option.

Our report highlights examples of unpaid internships in a range of industries, including fashion, marketing and politics. As recently as January 2018, an MP was found to be offering a six-month internship, unpaid, in their London office. While the placement required no set hours, it did involve real responsibilities, including providing support to an All Party Parliamentary Group. The internship was advertised as “ideal for someone looking to begin a career in politics, policy or the third sector”. Given that MPs are already considerably more likely to be from a privileged background than the constituents that they represent, it’s extremely disappointing that MPs continue to offer unpaid internships.

Another serious problem is internships being offered without being advertised, locking out young people without professional networks. The APPG on Social Mobility’s inquiry into access to the leading professions found that work experience, including internships, are often offered by employers to friends and family of staff members and clients or important stakeholders, rather than being openly advertised. An alumnus from a Sutton Trust access programme told us that finding an internship was challenging. When I asked my careers advisor for advice, I told them I didn’t have any industry connections as my parents hadn’t attended university – they told me it would be next to impossible to get an internship, as it only mattered who you knew.” Internships needs to be openly advertised and awarded on merit, to ensure that all young people have the chance to succeed.

Many employers either remain unaware that their interns should be paid, or are choosing to exploit the lack of clarity in the law to avoid paying their interns. That’s why the Sutton Trust are backing Lord Holmes’ bill to ban all internships over four weeks in length, a move backed by 72% of the population. The Sutton Trust recommends that all internships should be paid at least the National Minimum Wage (but preferably the Living Wage), are advertised, and awarded on merit. Without those changes, they will continue to be a barrier to social mobility.

Read our research brief on internships.

This blog originally appeared on Huffington Post.

Media enquiries

If you're a journalist with a question about our work, get in touch with Ruby. If it's out of office hours, you can call or text 07834 461299.

E: [email protected] T: 020 7802 1660

Keep up to date with the latest news