Would you work for free?

Most people’s answer would be a resounding “no”. And rightly so.

Internships, also known as ‘work experience’ or ‘work placement' have been standard business practice for a while. They’re thought to be a great opportunity for youngsters to learn a trade and gain valuable experience, while companies get a helping hand for a low cost.

At the start of your career, you’re not very valuable to companies, so you can’t expect to be compensated much. That said, we’re seeing more and more internships that don’t offer any compensation. That can't be right, can it?

Employment rights for interns

Here’s the crucial thing you need to know about internships.  

If an intern is shadowing an employee and learning by observing them do their job - that’s fine. They don’t need to be paid because they’re not doing a job.

If the intern starts producing real work, then they’re a worker.  

If they count as a worker, an intern is entitled to the National Minimum Wage, and therefore, Statutory Holiday Pay, and the usual range of employee rights. This standing can’t be overruled even if the company claims otherwise, or promises future work (can you ever really trust such a promise, anyway?)

According to Gov.UK,

"An intern is classed as a worker and is due the National Minimum Wage if they’re promised a contract of future work."

And if you're thinking of classing them as a 'volunteer' instead - be very careful. The rules around volunteering are strict and you need to make sure you're doing it properly.

Exposure doesn’t pay the bills

Getting your name out there is important, right?  

Sort of.

If you want to see just how bad some people’s understanding of fairness is, check out for_exposure.txt, a twitter account highlighting the infuriating entitlement of people requesting creative work for ridiculously low (or nonexistent) prices. (The account is brilliant, and addictive, but I had to unfollow it because it was just too rage-inducing.)

You’ll often see people asking for artists to provide hours of work for free, claiming they should be grateful for the opportunity to do something they love (!) and will be given credit on their social media feeds.

Last time I checked, my landlord wouldn’t accept Instagram likes as payment.  

And this attitude is now being adopted by companies around the world.

An uneven playing field

So what's the problem?

Well, one major issue with unpaid internships is that they promote inequality. Living in a city, where most of the jobs and opportunities are is expensive - and how’s an early-career worker going to pay the rent without a proper income each month?

Rich parents, that’s how. So you end up with a system where only wealthy families can get internships at the top companies, and talented folks from less privileged backgrounds get left behind.  It’s not just unfair, it’s bad for business - so many potentially brilliant young workers are being missed out on.

You wouldn’t expect a junior doctor to work for free, or a mechanic, or a retail manager. But for some reason, the creative and media industries are rife with lack of payment. It perpetuates a cycle of privilege that's hard to break. This tweet pretty much sums it up:

It's not quite slave labour, but it's getting there. (I couldn't help but laugh at this amazing case of a London charity fighting the problem of slave labour around the world, while advertising an unpaid internship. Brilliant.)

Some opportunities are really competitive and prestigious. You can't deny that jobs should be given to the most able candidate, and it's normal for hundreds people to apply for a single internship at a major media outlet. Anyone who gets a work experience position should be grateful for the opportunity to learn, and should work hard in return.

But they should also be paid.

Should you pay your interns?

Yeah, you should. Unless you’re a nonprofit and you’re taking on volunteers - but that arrangement should be explicitly clear as the law states there’s a difference.

And if you're 'assessing the suitability' of a candidate before offering a job - having them 'volunteer' for 3 months beforehand is effectively the same.

If you want to bring anyone into your office without paying them, you're going to have to think very carefully about whether it's legal or not.

And if you still want to go ahead with it - is it worth the negative press when stories like the above get shared around?

What are the alternatives to internships?

Other than internships (and just hiring people for jobs), you might consider running an apprenticeship scheme.

This is where a young person works as they are learning on the job, and you'll be able to get government funding to find them and bring them on board, as long as you pay them at least minimum wage.

Otherwise, have you considered being a bit more friendly to career returners? Running a returnship for those that have had a career break can offer you a whole host of benefits, like meeting new staff with different skillsets and proactive attitudes. These can be temporary projects that both parties benefit from - but you will have to pay them too.