Internships: for the many?

Internships: for the many?

Internships provide vital work experience. Yet, they can also be beyond reach.

There was something quite pertinent about last year’s penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, as Jon Snow and his gang of underprepared misfits ventured blindly into the dark fog beyond the wall. As melodramatic as this may sound, it’s an analogy that will no doubt resonate with plenty of second and third years as they look towards their post-uni future. Many don’t know what they want to do in the afterlife, and even those who do have a field or industry in mind often have no idea what it’s like to work there.

It’s a problem that’s become synonymous with university life, but it has its roots in earlier education. An increasingly overburdened classroom situation has made it nearly impossible for schools to bring in a suitably wide range of people with different working experiences that will interest all students. According to the Prince’s Trust, a charity that helps young people aged 11 to 30 to get into jobs, education and training, around one third of this country’s youth say they have never met anybody with a job they themselves would like to have.

Summer internships in London provide the perfect antidote to this ‘beyond the wall’ perception of the working world. They’re great not only for adding another section to your CV, but also because they represent a 30 to 60 day no-commitment trial of postgraduate life. They can help you understand not only what kind of field you want to work in, but also how you’d like to work within that field; whether you work best in a small group, a large company, working from home, commuting in and working 9-5, and so on.

And at UCL, in the heart of London, there is no better scope of opportunities. For a month or two you can become that important-looking person who walks a little more urgently than you up the Warren Street escalators, or a member of that loud group of work friends having a pint on Camden High Street at five o’clock on a Friday. Even if the work ultimately isn’t for you, there will always be a wide array of skills you pick up on the job that are transferable and, yes, look great on your CV.

There are endless lists online of top tips for nailing an application or interview, but two pieces of advice have helped me considerably more than the others. Firstly, make yourself seem valuable. Okay, sorry, that was horribly worded. You are valuable – but you can always come across as more valuable. And this doesn’t require a vast back catalogue of experiences and skills.

My boss always told me that there’s nothing more impressive than when an interviewee becomes the interviewer, and starts to examine whether the role is good enough for them rather than them being good enough for the role. If you can make clear that you have some firm goals in mind for what you want to achieve, and that you are thinking about the internship in the wider context of your career, you’ll set yourself firmly above the rest. And secondly, being able to prove that you can learn new skills quickly is often more desirable than having a few skills you have previously been taught. So if you’ve ever taken on a challenge you had no idea how to do – whether it’s using a certain software, or managing a team in any capacity, or organising an event with no guidance or prior experience – make sure to emphasise how fast and eager you were to pick up the necessary skills. In a world that ceaselessly reinvents itself through automation, the ability to adapt and learn is a far more valuable trait for industry roles than a pre-existing bank of knowledge.

Unfortunately, employers know all too well how enticing a summer internship in the capital can be, and frequently offer placements that only pay for travel expenses or, worse still, ‘pay with experience’ – in effect, not at all. Whilst this is a viable option for some, it is commonly an illegal practice. If an intern is working set hours and providing value to an organisation, they are considered workers and are entitled to the minimum wage as a matter of law. It is extraordinary just how many of these unpaid internships there are; a 2014 report by The Sutton Trust, a social mobility charity, suggested that 22,000 summer interns out of 70,000 were working for free.

There has been far more resistance to unpaid internships in recent years. For many, they have become emblematic of a world of diminishing social mobility. A NUS survey conducted in 2012 showed that whilst one in ten people in the upper or middle class bracket took on unpaid internships, only 3 percent in the working class bracket did the same.The SuttonTrust have found that unpaid internships in London cost over £1000 a month, placing them out of reach of students who cannot receive financial support from their parents. Indictments of these placements have ranged from ‘unfair’ to ‘illegal’, but no-one has encapsulated the issue as eloquently as Lord Holmes of Richmond, who claimed last year that unpaid internships “leave young people in a Catch 22 situation”, and the whole practice should be consigned to “the novels of Dickens” (we get it, Lord Holmes, you like books).

So where does UCL stand on the matter? In 2013, a Union policy was passed ruling that no unpaid internships should be advertised through their career services. The Union was emphatic in its support for the policy, underscoring its belief that such internships “will undermine the rights and status of existing workers (as previous paid positions become unpaid), will entrench certain sectors as the preserve of the economic elite and inculcate a disregard for basic labour rights in a whole generation of workers”. Yet from my own experience of applying earlier this year, there is still a significant number of internships advertised via the UCL Careers Services that don’t pay the minimum wage. On two occasions this only transpired at the interview stage.

It’s difficult to attribute the full blame to UCL for this. They offer thousands of internships each year and inevitably amongst those will be some offered by organisations that are either unaware of the laws or exploiting their ambiguity. Vogue, for example, advertised an internship as ‘work-shadowing’ – one of the loopholes companies use to avoid paying workers – when their role was fixed-hours and involved tasks that most would consider valuable and important to the company. Ironically, the issue extends as far up as HMRC, whose complaints process has come under fire this year for being slow, unresponsive, and reliant on interns themselves to come forward. In response to this criticism, the government admitted that there had been no prosecutions, but have since sent over 550 warning letters to organisations and establishing enforcement teams.

There are, however, more honest circumstances for unpaid work where organisations or people offering internships cannot guarantee a return on their investment in you and cannot pay the requisite wage. If you are willing to work on a voluntary basis, then it’s worth bearing in mind just how much control you have over how, where, and when you work.

This article was originally published in Issue 721 of Pi Magazine

Artwork by Rhianna Betts