Internships – how important are they?
This summer millions of students, either graduates or current undergraduates, will be embarking on some form of internship. Though almost unheard of three decades ago, internships have now become an intricate part of a student’s experience and even an increasingly rising requirement for post-graduate employment. In the US, research suggests that almost 90% of employers expect students to have between one or two internships under their belt before they graduate.
Here in England, many companies have now recognised that internships are simply the new norm; they see it as a welcomed system of screening new potential employees and to ensure that new recruits have a firm fundamental knowledge and experience of the workplace before they truly are flung in the deep end after graduation. Traditionally over-subscribed institutions, like politics and the media, are especially fond of the new focus on internships. Indeed, broadcasting organisations, such as the BBC and ITV, are quite openly advertising internships on their websites. However, critics view internships as a vast conspiracy involving the immoral but legitimate accumulation of free labour and suggest that the expectation in many industries to be prepared to work unpaid significantly limits the number of students from non-privileged backgrounds who benefit from the system.
On the face of it internships seem like a pretty good deal: it is mutually beneficial for cash-strapped companies to make use of low paid or free labour whilst in return giving the student invaluable experience at being in a workplace environment and the possibility of a future job or recommendation. In fact, a lot of the time internships are a paradigm example of engineering successful careers. A company takes on a young student, bright eyed and bushy tailed, for a two year internship. He makes such an impression that they offer him a permanent job within their hierarchy and now he has moved to the head office with an annual salary of £40,000 a year. These kinds of success stories occur regularly. Even a few famous actors, broadcasters and directors have started their careers quite humbly by way of internships. Steven Spielberg managed to acquire an internship at Universal Studio's purchasing department. After convincing the studio’s executives to see one of his early films, they were so inspired that they agreed to sign a seven year contract with him.
However, if we look at the broader picture it is certainly noticeable that the premise of unpaid internships is not entirely indefensible. In an idealistic world where we can trust each other’s intentions it would be. However, internships seem like a far too easy way for employers to take advantage of young labour by offering them the currency of experience rather than ... well, actual currency; and of course, future recommendations or job offers are never guaranteed. It is not as if students have much bargaining power either, especially in an ever increasing competitive career-orientated society. If an intern refuses to do the photocopying without getting paid, then a company can simply find another who will. This also, as critics claim, widens social inequality as lower income students are implicitly banned from participating because they simply can’t afford to sustain themselves through a lengthy period without a reliable income; and as such the gateway to full-employment to a field of their choosing is therefore hindered. This would explain why so many professions, such as journalism and politics, are becoming vastly dominated by the middle class.
Whatever your take on internships, it is apparent that they now have a prominent effect on the future employment of students. Perhaps then, for a system that stands to offer so many opportunities and benefits for those involved, businesses could do well to improve their scope of fairness and equality.