Research, Policy and Communications Intern Angel Fletcher reflects on the barriers unadvertised internships pose to social mobility.

In almost all instances, employers look for experience in a working role or in a relevant industry profession before uttering the words, ‘You’re hired!’. For many graduates, internships act as the first stepping stone onto the career ladder and offer an essential platform for breaking into the world of work. Unfortunately, while internships are clearly an important first step in the journey to employment for many graduates, many of these opportunities pass disadvantaged young people by.

Evidence from our recent research shows that internships are often unadvertised or secured through personal connections. The problem is intrinsically linked with the class gap, with limited access to opportunities for disadvantaged young people a clear barrier to social mobility.

Our research highlights a discrepancy in the number of internships advertised online compared with the number of interns in the UK, and this shows that there is still much to be done to improve the chances of young people from all backgrounds to access these opportunities. This is echoed in our most recent internships report, Pay As You Go?, which revealed that just 17% of the interns we surveyed found their role through an advertisement.

Our research also found that where interns find their role depends on their socio-economic background. Those from working-class backgrounds were more likely to find out about opportunities in an education environment, while middle-class graduates were more likely to find a placement through a personal contact, through advertisements or by independently contacting organisations. This reflects both the professional networks that middle-class graduates often have access to, as well as the social and cultural capital they have to promote themselves and find opportunities.

This lack of accessibility is a huge barrier to social mobility as it prohibits young people from less well-off backgrounds from taking up high quality opportunities, and limits the talent pool that employers have to choose from. Our recent research revealed the extent of the class gap, with 43% of middle-class graduates having taken an internship compared to 31% of working-class graduates. These class imbalances are compounded by our findings that middle class graduates are more likely to be funded by their parents, have savings and use personal connections to secure an internship.

That’s why we are calling for employers to use fair recruitment processes, transparent advertising and better advice and guidance for prospective and current interns as internships are important opportunities that should be open to all.

There are some examples of good practice and well-advertised opportunities, but more needs to be done. For example, the DfE’s Graduate Talent Pool website is a great resource that advertises openly and widely, and only offers paid opportunities. However, more promotion of the benefits of the portal to universities, graduates and businesses could transform it into a hub for internships and establish good practice on fair recruitment, advertising and pay among businesses.

In order for an internships standard to be achieved, employers must advertise all internships publicly rather than informally and use fair, transparent and merit-based processes. And universities also have a key, and not too dissimilar, role to play in making students aware of what internships are and how to access these opportunities. Universities are increasingly connecting young people with internships, and so we would like to see higher education providers step up their internships programmes and only advertise opportunities that are paid the minimum wage. This would give students, regardless of background, the best chance of becoming familiar with the right opportunities early on.

Improving the internships landscape is an uphill struggle and there is much work to be done by employers, higher education providers and the government to pave the way for fair access to the workplace. Stamping out informal and unadvertised opportunities is the crucial next step towards closing the class and access gap that afflicts our society at every level.

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