Alan Milburn’s Commission on Social Mobility has published a report calling for unpaid internships to be banned. Their research with the public suggests that ‘72% would back a change in the law preventing companies from exploiting unpaid interns – with 42% “strongly supporting” a ban’.
Ah if only these things were so easy (and leaving aside the leading nature of the question). How many of the public would have supported a ban if the question had been ‘Would you like to ban people from doing long-term volunteering?’ Or ‘Many charities depend on volunteers to run their charity shops, their fundraising and even their offices. Should charities be banned from depending on volunteers?’
There is nothing easy about the debate on volunteers and internships. A few years ago we made the decision not to have anybody with us for more than a couple of weeks unpaid. Now we pay all interns at least the London living wage or around £19,000 a year. And I know that even a few months of internship with us can be a real stepping stone to getting a job. One of our interns this summer has just started as a graduate trainee with a big (and boring, some would say) market research company.
I would hire more interns, but the truth is we can’t afford to. So there are people out there who would come and work for us, volunteer for us, because they know they need work experience to get a job. And we know that 3 months of volunteer work with us would help them get a job, but we have decided that it’s not fair to do that. Who is doing well out of this? Neither us, nor an intern who never had the chance. Only our warm glow of feeling we aren’t exploiting people burns a little brighter.
The dilemma is even starker, when it comes to looking at how an intern is defined. Many charities will have volunteers who have been with them for years and put in the hours to be doing the same as many staff. These may be retired. They may have partners who allow them not to have to work. They may be recovering from health challenges and appreciate the structure of long-term volunteering. There are any number of reasons, good reasons, why somebody should be a long-term volunteer. But how do we tell a volunteer from an intern? Is the solution to discriminate on the basis of age? Under 30s are interns and over 30s are volunteers.
Even that definition falls down - what about people who do VSO or other types of long-term volunteering overseas. Or people who do volunteering (as with Emmaus for example) or as part of some kind of religious or ideological conviction? So how would anybody define an internship?
Perhaps one way would be that we ban internships with companies, but charities are OK. What about volunteering vs internships with the NHS? Or an MP? Or a party political campaign? Or a campaign group? Are those OK? So it’s ok to intern for anything as long as it’s not a company?
Of course we should encourage any organisation which can afford to pay interns to do so. But the idea that unpaid internships should be banned is an assault on volunteering by the back door. And the voluntary sector should resist it with all its might.
The ideal is of curse if all employers do as the writer does and pay interns a minimum wage. There is also an argument that whereas work experience (for a week or two) should be allowed unpaid as the employer is unlikely to be gaining much commercial benefit from it if the period of work is longer then it is either real work with commercial value and the employer should pay or it is nominal work of little value to the employer and hence likely little value to the internee either.
Of course one can see that a period of internship with a prestigious company boosts the CV even if you only made the tea.
As you say Joe not a question with one easy answer.
This is a subject of lots of debate within nfpSynergy and I have to say I disagree with a lot of what Joe says:
"So there are people out there who would come and work for us, volunteer for us, because they know they need work experience to get a job. And we know that 3 months of volunteer work with us would help them get a job, but we have decided that it’s not fair to do that. Who is doing well out of this? Neither us, nor an intern who never had the chance."
To me it is very clear who is doing well out of this: the person who cannot afford to work for free in one of the most expensive cities in the world, who would otherwise be up against one more person privileged enough to be able to work for free to get experience the next time they apply for a job. I am proud (and I think Joe is too!) that we at nfpSynergy pay everyone who works for us, though I think it should be a bare minimum requirement for a profit-making company (even if that profit isn't very big). I started at nfpSynergy as an intern nearly seven years ago - I could not afford to live in London for free and my subsequent career might have been very difficult if this opportunity for a paid internship for someone with pretty limited experience wasn't there.
The truth is that many interns are "employed" at private companies and are exploited for their labour in what once would have been entry level jobs. Access to the professions has become the preserve of an ever-smaller proportion of society - unpaid internships are one of the ways that this dynamic is reinforced.
I agree that the situation isn't as clear cut with charities, but there is definitely abuse of the internship even in charities - jobseekers taking on full time roles, doing work that would traditionally have been paid, for months on end, hoping that there will be a job somewhere down the line, is not a good situation. Surely we can find a way to protect the valid volunteering needs of the charity sector while also getting rid of the reinforcement of privilege that is represented by unpaid internships.
(If Joe fires me for this, can I have an internship with someone?)
Apologies for the wall of text - apparently we can't do linebreaks!
This is an important area for debate and whilst it is not easy to draw a distinction between volunteering and unpaid internships we must continue to try to do so. I recently saw a large national charity offering an unpaid internship - this position had a JD, expectations, a commitment was to be made. It was in London and full-time. I challenge anyone to define this as volunteering, which I understood to be about time given freely, without commitment or expectation.
I believe strongly that to allow unpaid internships to continue unchecked - in any sector - is to exploit those with the opportunity to take them, and propagates the divisions that see our workplaces lacking in diversity as only those who can afford to work without charge are able to be exploited in return for a head-start in their career.
There is such disparity in wealth in the UK. I personally believe that an increase in the minimum wage to a living wage is part of the solution. I am confident that not paying any wage is perpetuating our status quo. I firmly believe that any organisation - for profit or otherwise - should value all of its workforce and if it finds that it is reliant on any member of that workforce, should ensure that this person is paid adequately.
Not sure I recognise that definition of volunteering. There are loads of volunteers making commitments to activity that carry clear expectations and commitment, often including requiring quite a bit of training (which can be one of the attractions). The appropriate boundaries are complicated.
Private companies shouldn't be profiting from free labour - so Joe's suggestion at the end is one I could compromise on.
Inequality and lack of opportunity for those from poorer backgrounds is the other reason interns should be paid. Many industries have internships as standard entry points and as a result are ensuring that only young people from a wealthy background are getting on. For me interns should be paid if it's for a significant enough period of time - say 3 months.
Very interesting article and having inherited an issue in a previous role as Volunteer Manager in a charity it rang many bells. The term intern should never have been used really but it was with a particular graduate and another member of staff obviously felt she was being exploited in some way and reported us to HMRC for not paying her the minimum wage. She was not getting paid at all and thank goodness that all her application documents for the opportunity were our standard volunteering ones which was very reassuring when we had a HMRC audit as a result. Lesson learned, don't let anyone refer to volunteers as anything other than volunteers!
Very interesting article and having inherited an issue in a previous role as Volunteer Manager in a charity it rang many bells. The term intern should never have been used really but it was with a particular graduate and another member of staff obviously felt she was being exploited in some way and reported us to HMRC for not paying her the minimum wage. She was not getting paid at all and thank goodness that all her application documents for the opportunity were our standard volunteering ones which was very reassuring when we had a HMRC audit as a result. Lesson learned, don't let anyone refer to volunteers as anything other than volunteers! Outcome: The Charity no longer offer internships - long term volunteering yes. The graduate did go on to get her first job in her chosen field.
If you add up the poorly paid zero hour contract jobs, the increasing number of 'poorly paid self employed because I can't face the hassle of the Department of Work and Sanctions', the insult of 'in work' benefits because of the low wage practices of private for profit companies and add the uncertainty of Brexit and future jobs lost to robotics or A.I. automation it really paints a bleak future for workers. In this impoverished scenario, NO profit making private company or third sector organisations with large reserves (surreal, I worked as a fundraiser with one that had 35 million, or 7 years running costs banked) should be allowed to employ unpaid interns. If there is no fightback then I can see charities tendering to run the government's new improved workhouses. Where will it end? When the PM's 'Just About Managing are transformed into the 'Just about Drowned'?
If there's one thing I learned from seeing Joe speak at a conference a couple of years back (& The New Alchemy) it's that charities need to stop whinging about volunteers not being the same as they used to & that organisations need to change the way they work with volunteers so there's two way benefit & opportunities that suit people's different & changing lifestyles. I could never have afforded to do an internship, especially not in London but volunteering short shifts as a new graduate certainly started & shaped the career I love today.
Every charity using interns should have a formal internship policy. Internships, can be a key way to obtain essential work experience, and must not be accessible only to those with parents rich enough to support them - for which reason they should only last for short, time-limited terms. Internships should involve formal training and be subject to official contracts. In my last role I unsuccessfully suggested that we should replace internships with a formal graduate training programme on the London living wage.
Comment from Rachel Egan:
As a former intern at nfpSynergy, and a big fan of the work they do, I have to say I also disagree with Joe. An intern and a volunteer are not the same thing at all and charitable organisations need to get that clear.
For starters an intern often signs a contract, whereas a volunteer signs an agreement. Internships often have formal job descriptions, person specifications and there are often a lot more hoops to jump through to get an internship vs a voluntary role. Volunteers may choose to volunteer for many different reasons (on which nfpSynergy have produced some excellent free reports), but interns do it primarily to 'get the experience' and then 'move up the ladder'.
If somebody has set hours, set objectives and are required to document their progress towards objectives, plus they have to give notice when they want to leave then they are a worker and not a volunteer. Volunteers often 'compliment' the work of an organisation; they make it better and more meaningful, interns are often left with the boring jobs nobody else wants to do.
Let's be honest, nobody does an 'internship' out of the goodness of their heart do they?
What I would say, is that 2-3 weeks of unpaid work experience, which I have seen people do at nfpSynergy is slightly different - it is very short-term, the rules about timings and objectives are flexible but it can massively boost somebody's confidence and CV and if they're happy with that, then I don't see how it's a bad thing. It needs to be short term though - otherwise it becomes exploitative.
As the executive director of a social mobility charity, The Brokerage, I disagree with Joe’s argument.
Internships and volunteers, in this context, are just not related to one another. It’s like comparing apples and pears. Internships are proper jobs; volunteering is just that – the volunteer chooses to do it in their own time, and when they want to rather than when the employer wants them to.
At The Brokerage, we facilitate over 100 paid internships a year for students who would otherwise not have the connections nor be able to afford to do them. Without such opportunities, where would these students be?
In charities, we often can’t afford to pay financially, but any intern should walk away with at least as much as he/she put in. I part ensuring that what they do gives them valuable experience and helps them begin to build a network. And I’ve often helped them with coaching, writing CVs, practice interviews .... hiring interns as free staff is wrong in any organisation. And pay them, if at all possible.