Our Digital Communications Officer, Lewis Tibbs, discusses how unpaid internships act as a barrier to achieving social mobility in Britain. 

Internships are often transformative experiences for graduates – an invaluable opportunity to gain hands-on experience within a specific sector; develop key transferable skills and knowledge; and build new contacts and networks with potential employers. It is no surprise that internships are one of the most common ways through which many graduates kickstart their careers. 

But the benefits of internships come with one big caveat – are they paid?  

Because, as our research has previously highlighted, unpaid internships remain a persistent and significant problem in Britain, and it is undermining our collective efforts to improve social mobility in the workplace. 

Against a backdrop of an ongoing cost-of-living crisis and its many ripple effects on the affordability of rent, food and energy bills for people across the country, it is all the more important that we tackle this issue head on. 

The rise of unpaid internships 

In 2018, we surveyed thousands of young graduates and employers to paint a detailed picture of graduate internships. In our research, we found that there were around 100,000 interns working in Britain every year, with 39% of graduates in their twenties saying that they have done an internship. 

Perhaps most notably, we found that around 58,000 of them were unpaid, with over a quarter of graduates saying that they had previously completed an unpaid internship.  

This is problematic because taking up an unpaid position is inevitably influenced by one’s access to resources and connections; those from lower income backgrounds are at a clear disadvantage when trying to access these opportunities in comparison to their wealthier peers. 

People from better off backgrounds are more able to rely on family and friends for support with living costs in addition to being more able to forgo paid work in order to commit the time to an unpaid internship (the proverb ‘time is money’ rings true in this case). Consequently, this creates a disparity between the types of people who can afford to take up unpaid internships. 

The costs of unpaid work 

It is particularly important that we pay attention to this problem given the heavy centralisation of Britain’s economy, in which London dominates in terms of access to opportunities for graduates. 

This geographical imbalance was reflected in our findings, with 62% of employers in London reporting that they offered internships, the highest of any area in the country. And how much does it cost an intern for every month in they work in London? £1,093. In Manchester, ostensibly the ‘affordable’ option, it costs £905 per month.

What is more worrying is that the picture has almost certainly changed since then, with the cost-of-living crisis likely driving up the already high costs of taking on an unpaid internship. Surging inflation is leading to skyrocketing energy bills as well as spikes in food prices and rental costs, the latter of which already represents a substantial financial outgoing for a young person living in a major city. 

Evidently, taking up an unpaid position simply isn’t feasible for many, especially in the capital. It is a luxury which few can afford, and a luxury which is exacerbating a class divide that strongly influences who can access which professions in Britain. 

It is therefore crucial that employers pay interns a proper wage for the work that they do, ensuring nobody is locked out of an opportunity due to their financial circumstances. A proper wage means rates are set according to the real living wage – which is set independently by the Living Wage Foundation, whose rates are based on the cost of living, an imperative given the current economic context. 

But it doesn’t solely come down to pay. It is also essential that internship positions are advertised publicly and formally, with fair and transparent recruitment processes used to make hiring decisions. Our research showed that many internships are never advertised, instead being offered through informal networks such as to friends or family of staff, meaning many talented young people without connections lose out on potential opportunities. 

Open advertisement of properly paid internships, accompanied by fair hiring processes, is the best way to ensure that these opportunities are awarded based on merit and talent, rather than personal connections. 

How a paid internship kickstarted my career 

This issue strikes a personal chord with me: when I commenced my post-graduation job search in the summer of 2021, I came across far too many positions which would have unquestionably provided me with vital experience but were simply off limits, because they weren’t paid. This was unfortunately the trend across various sectors, including the media, politics and the charity sector.

Initially, I did wonder whether this was purely anecdotal. However, unpaid internships are indeed most prominent in industries such as the media and the arts, where up to 86% of internships on offer are unpaid. The rampant usage of unpaid labour in these industries is likely connected in part to the class imbalances in their workforces, as our previous work has revealed.

In my case, I was lucky enough to secure an internship with the Sutton Trust – it was a full-time position as Research, Policy and Communications Intern. The role allowed me to gain key insights into the world of research and policy as well as the wider world of think tanks; helped me develop new and applicable skills; and provided a welcome boost to my self-confidence. 

And importantly, it was paid at the London Living Wage, granting me the financial security to move to a new city and take up an opportunity that I was incredibly keen to grab. If this were not the case, I would have been unable to kickstart my career, and would have been severely limited in terms of the options and opportunities available to me in the future.

Paid internships should be the default 

I was fortunate, but it should not be the case that a young person has to be so in order to secure a paid internship; it should be the default.  

We know there is a huge pool of talent all across this country, latently waiting to be unleashed. But people from disadvantaged backgrounds are currently being locked out of competitive industries due to the persistent usage of unpaid internships in many sectors, and they are missing out on useful experiences within and novel exposure to the world of work as a result. 

So, it is essential that we take action to ensure that people are able to access internships based on their suitability, passion and ability, regardless of their financial situation. If we fail to do so, we are severely impeding our ability to ensure that the opportunities available to a young person are not tethered to their background.  

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