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How unpaid work experience could be damaging the job market

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On October 30, employment minister Damian Hinds indicated that Theresa May’s government would be reviewing the status of unpaid internships as part of a new drive on social mobility. This comes at the same time as a bill to completely ban unpaid internships was presented to the commons, although it is unlikely to pass. Why do unpaid internships inspire such disapproval?

Work experience is undoubtedly valuable, not only in introducing students to the workplace environment, but also increasingly in helping to secure a job. Warwick Careers service say that 33% of last year’s UK graduates are employed by a company that they previously worked with.

However, the author of the bill – backbench Conservative MP Alan Shelbrooke – is concerned that unpaid internships perpetuate wealthier students’ advantage in the employment market. He told the Mail on Sunday that many graduates are beaten to positions by rivals who, at university, “pissed about a bit, got a 2:2, but got the job because they had money put behind them.” The logic is that taking an unpaid position requires some degree of financial stability, something many students do not have. Nonetheless these opportunities can be worthwhile to those who are willing to take the financial hit.

The logic is that taking an unpaid position requires some degree of financial stability, something many students do not have

Simran Thakral, final year PAIS student, did an unpaid internship at the Bangkok Post this summer. She was aided by a £200 bursary from Warwick “which was useful in Bangkok but not so useful here.” Nevertheless, she said: “I got a lot out of the internship and added to my portfolio.”

Some fear that stricter regulation could reduce the number of unique and speculative opportunities for students with small and medium enterprises, as well as in the cash strapped industries. This may limit student internships to the big firms who have the capital to fund large undergraduate schemes.

Dan Sethna, a former Warwick Economics student, did an internship with RBS in 2015 which preceded a graduate programme offer. However, when asked if he would have done the same work for free, he said that, as an international student, he would only do that “if they were definitely going to accept me and sponsor my visa and pay me well for the grad scheme.”

Intern Aware, a pressure group, claim that most unpaid internships are exploitative and illegal since students do end up doing real work

Intern Aware, a pressure group, claim that most unpaid internships are exploitative and illegal since students do end up doing real work – something that worries Christopher Manley (PPE senior careers consultant, Warwick Careers and Skills) as well. He warns that “employers that tolerate this state of affairs – which is technically illegal – are unlikely to face any censure,” but he concedes that for some professions it is basically required.

Does this mean you shouldn’t still choose an unpaid stint? “It is certainly not my job to try to dissuade students from doing this, despite the sometimes arguably disreputable behaviour of some employers,” Manley says. “Some students will make an entirely rational choice to do them anyway.”

Whether they stick around or not, they should be worthwhile.

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