Job-hunting for young people - 3: "Unpaid internships – should I do them or are they slave labour?"
The third in the series in which teenage expert Nicola Morgan covers job-hunting for young people
Unpaid internships or unpaid work periods are hugely more common than they were when today’s parents were starting work. They can be useful and important ways to show and develop skills or aptitude and useful and important ways into many careers. They can help a CV look better.
They can also be slave labour. Some of them seem like nothing more than a way for companies to get people to do their boring work without paying them. And sometimes the only people who can afford to work for nothing are those whose parents can support them. That is very wrong and divisive. For example, how can someone living far from London afford to spend a month (and I've heard of SIX months) staying in London and not being paid? Only someone with a lot of money behind them.
Often young people feel obliged to take these opportunities and in some industries (such as the media) they are more prevalent than others.
There is a move towards pushing companies to pay at least something to people doing work experience, for ethical reasons, although then they may run into trouble for not paying the minimum wage...
So, when is an unpaid work experience/internship worth doing?
- When it’s short. For example, one of my daughters signed up to a one-week placement with a company and halfway through the week they offered her a full-time job.
- When it’s structured. They should make it clear who you will be working with (ideally moving round more than one task/department) and what you’d be doing. My other daughter did a week with a publishing company which planned the week really well so that she was with a different person each day.
- When it properly lets you learn how the business/job works, so you can genuinely try it out and they can try you out. (Which should be the purpose for both sides). You should not only be making teas and doing photocopying - you should expect to be given those tasks, just not only those tasks.
- When there is a real possibility of it leading to a job – though there will be no guarantees. You might ask how many interns do stay to work fulltime, for example. Or how many vacancies they have.
- Your expenses should definitely be covered. (I don’t mean travel from home to work, but anything you have to pay for at work, such as travel within the working day, should be reimbursed.) Many/most companies do now pay interns a small amount of money, which is a very good thing - and, in my opinion, something they ought to do, ethically. There is nothing wrong with asking about this at the interview; there is no shame in not being able to afford to pay for things when you are not earning.
You can’t always be sure of all these things in advance, and sometimes it is worth taking a risk for the sake of getting something interesting on your CV. And certainly I believe that starting at the bottom and doing mundane tasks is a valuable starting point for anyone. But I don’t agree that anyone should be abused. So, yes, by all means, be prepared to do some limited work for little or no pay, but keep it to a limit. Since you are being paid nothing or little, the internship should benefit you in other ways.
Also, and crucially, if companies opt for using unpaid workers, they are not only abusing individuals in vulnerable positions; they are also slowing down and undervaluing the whole job market and world of work. From the point of view of society as a whole, internships should play a very minimal part.
If you do take a short, unpaid or low-paid work opportunity, make the most of this experience by being willing, quick to learn, confident about asking questions. If you’re not being paid, you need to get a very good reference at the end of it, and that is worth working for.
In short: make sure you use your experience and are not used.
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Next, I'll be talking about making your CV better.