Business: Is student expertise being exploited?

5th September 2011

A study by university careers agency Graduate Prospects has found that nearly half of all internships undertaken by students are unpaid.

The agency asked 22,000 UK graduates between 2006 and 2010 if they did any work experience while studying for their degree. 43% of those who completed internships were not paid while 70% of students took on casual paid work.

Chief executive of Graduate Prospects Mike Hill says: "Despite the hype around unpaid work experience placements over the last few years, we can see from the study that a huge proportion of interns still have to work for free."

The issue of unpaid student and graduate internships has hit the headlines frequently over the past couple of years. To get a paid position in many professions it has become essential to complete an unpaid work placement or internship first – something only the wealthy can afford to do.

A code of best practice published by the TUC says companies hiring interns for six weeks or more should pay the minimum wage if the intern has a list of duties and set working hours. However the code does not cover work placements carried out by people in full-time education, providing a handy loophole for employers benefitting from free student labour.

One user wrote on the Interns Anonymous blog (http://internsanonymous.co.uk/): "Simply put, I believe internships are only a viable option for people from high socio-economic backgrounds. I cannot afford to do free work and I will be made to suffer for it as an employer will value the three-month admin internship one student has completed over my two years of paid employment in a retail environment, just because they could take the time and money to do it in the first place.

"The counter argument may be that an employer will recognise my hard work and dedication anyway? However, in my experience companies demand specific kinds of work experience. You don't get experience if someone does not give you a chance to learn but you guessed it, they won't give you that chance without previous experience. Thus, I expect, this vicious circle continues to haunt many other young people like me."

Another blog, Intern Aware (http://www.internaware.org/blog), has written an open letter to Labour party leader Ed Milliband urging him to keep his pledge and end unpaid internships in the Labour Party.

"We were delighted that you signed our pledge to campaign for the "Minimum Wage Act to be fully enforced so that employers must pay their interns," says the letter, "But it is difficult to talk about social mobility with a straight face while the only young people who can afford to work in Labour MPs' offices are those who can afford to work for free."

Meanwhile a story on The Guardian .about the Graduate Prospects survey showed that many students and graduates are still being expected to work for free.

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