In Defence of Internships

In favour of reform?

In favour of reform?

Dear PM,

Surely everyone recognises the benefit of internships?

I refer here particularly to internships offered by MPs, but the point stands for internships offered by the public and private sectors alike.

What are the benefits of internships exactly?

The list below does not claim to exhaust the issue, but it is a start.

Internships can be:

  1. A career track option for those wanting to work in particularly highly sought-after jobs in difficult sectors, such as national journalism or politics for example.
  2. A good way to gain experience and improve your curriculum vitae, especially if you are still in full-time study when you undertake it.
  3. A great networking opportunity; this may eventually lead to a full-time job with the MP (or company, if in the private sector) you are interning with, or a good recommendation for a job elsewhere.
  4. An opportunity to be mentored, work with and learn from people who have already achieved a degree of success in their career.
  5. A good career-trial, a way to examine whether a particular job/career is for you, or best left to others.

The point I am trying to make here, in no uncertain terms, is that internships are in fact a good thing.

No. Let me qualify that.

Internships are a good thing, but only if they are paid.

Unpaid internships, on the other hand, are nothing more than blatant exploitation. Unpaid internships are a form of exploitation both towards those who do them and towards those who are excluded because they can’t afford to do them.

 Here are a few key points to consider.

Unpaid internships have vast implications for youth unemployment.

1. Interns are expected to work increasingly longer periods of time unpaid – with less chance of a job at the end of them.

2. Unpaid internships are supposedly meant to lead to paid, junior jobs – but have ended up replacing them.

3. Most unpaid intern positions could be said to be in breach of the National Minimum Wage law: Anybody who fits the criteria of being a “worker” must be paid at least the NMW (£6.08 for over 21s, the last time I checked). Since these positions involve real work that is of value to employers, be they MPs or other, it is unclear as to why employers feel these workers should not be paid.

In the case of internships offered by MPs, the most commonly given justification is that “The office enters in to an intern volunteer agreement as set out by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.”

But the IPSA ruling is deeply disappointing. Reforms that were supposed to clean up our politics and protect interns, instead are transforming the political class into an exclusive, closed and unrepresentative system.

Unpaid internships are a real barrier to the most basic social mobility. Internships, even paid internships, ought to be the exception, not the norm in so far as job entry is concerned.

It would be better practice by far for graduates to be offered junior positions that include training as part of the package.

What use is our astoundingly expensive education if we cannot hope to secure a job, even a lowly paid job, at the end of it, and are expected instead to work for free?

It is an outrage that MPs, who supposedly spend much of their working life thinking about the social impact of policies, continue to condone the practice. Worse still: they perpetuate it.

And since we are on the topic of MPs.

The main reason politicians get paid – as I see it – is to ensure that politics is open to more than the moneyed elites. How many of our British politicians would continue to act as representatives if they could nor draw a salary and all job related expenses, and would only have their travel expenses paid?

And since it is so clear that remuneration is essential for the continued flourishing of a representative system in a democracy, why do parliamentarians curtail opportunities for youth and obstruct their first crucial step onto the career ladder in modern politics?

Surely to deserve the name of democracy, we cannot have a representative political system where the only people able to enter politics are those who can afford to work for free?

I was disappointed to learn recently that, after all this time, our PM still has difficulties presenting a consistent view of the matter.

David Cameron’s confusing message to employers on the subject of unpaid internships, where, on the one hand, he condemns the practice, while on the other insists that it is important that unpaid positions are advertised widely, does not help matters.

Which is it, dear PM?

What is the point of knowing about an opportunity if the end result is the same: you simply cannot afford to take it.

If you acknowledge that unpaid internships are a huge social, cultural and economic problem, that it affects hundreds of thousands of young people and has done so for years, that it stifles hope and aspiration, and it stalls social mobility among the UK’s bright, hardworking young people… then why not do something about it?

Or perhaps, dear David, you do not have the power to make a change? Of course, I understand. What power could you possibly hold? You are only the prime-minister after all.  

If you do have a mind to do something about it however, may I be so bold as to offer my two penny’s worth.

You will have to consider how much inexperienced undergraduates would be paid and by what mechanism.

You may begin by amending minimum wage legislation so as to enable MPs to pay interns from existing staffing budgets.  

Problem: budgetary constraint is why many MPs have interns in the first place.

Solution 1: a major increase to MP staffing budgets.

Solution 2: a central Parliamentary fund for interns.

Problem: In the first instance, MPs would be unwilling to agitate publicly for more expenses (think 2009 expenses scandal). It would be a difficult ask in the present austerity.  In the second instance, in addition to the difficulty of requesting more funds, the central Parliamentary fund would restrict direct recruitment by MPs, therefore risking a curtailment of the benefits currently offered by internships, and of course it would make recruitment more impersonal. Whether this would be a negative factor, I will let you decide.

Solution: A change in public attitudes to MPs and their expenses is required, recognising the benefit of paid internships to so many young people who would get the chance to enter politics irrespective of their background and finances.

How is this to be effected? Well. I am sure that you will find many an expert to help you with that. After all, it is only a PR exercise, and so many of your colleagues do have the background to contribute a method for bringing about the solution I propose.

If your colleagues fail you, perhaps you could look for a solution elsewhere. Hazel Blairs’ project springs to mind.

What would not be acceptable is for the government you head to transform our “big society” into a ruthless mechanism that turns the desperation of the unemployed into free labour.

Thank you for listening. Now kindly do something about it.

Warmest regards,

Vic Briggs