Internship Guide

Tips for first Internship

Everything you need to know about getting work experience

Many graduate jobs require work experience. But how do you get experience if you’re straight out of University? One way is to get an internship. In other words a temporary job ‘learning the ropes’ within a chosen profession.

While sometimes these internships are paid – especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) sectors – often they’re not. For example, it is not uncommon for those who want to work in the media to undertake several unpaid internships before getting a paid job.

Intership guide. Word Praktikum packed out in scrabble letters

The Sutton Trust’s survey of graduates revealed more than a quarter (27 per cent) have undertaken unpaid internships. Of those, over two fifths (43 per cent) relied on living with friends or family. A further quarter (26 per cent) get financial support from their parents. And another 27 per cent have a second job to fund their internship.

Lack of social mobility

According to the Sutton Trust, the minimum monthly cost of doing an unpaid internship is £1,019 in London. This is when you take into account rent, bills, travel and other living costs. In Manchester, it is a little cheaper (£827), but not much. As a result, it is often graduates from wealthier backgrounds with families who can support them who take unpaid internships.

Says Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust and chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation:

“Unpaid internships prevent young people from low and moderate-income backgrounds from accessing careers in some of the most desirable sectors such as journalism, fashion, the arts and law. It prevents these young people from getting a foot on the ladder.”

It’s a view which Chris Rea, higher education services manager at student job site Prospects, shares. He recently told People Management that unpaid internships inhibit social mobility and trap graduates in “a cycle of hopelessness that damages their self-esteem”.

“Unpaid internships are the scourge of the graduate labour market,” he added. “They absolutely must, in all circumstances, be paid.”

Are unpaid internships illegal?

While under current legislation it is still technically legal for some employers to offer unpaid internships, there are very strict guidelines. (See Rights to the National Minimum Wage below). Furthermore, Conservative Peer Lord Holmes has a private members’ bill going through Parliament which will improve the rights of graduates looking for work experience.

The Unpaid Work Experience (Prohibition) Bill will prevent companies from offering unpaid internships greater than four weeks when it eventually becomes law. It follows research from the Social Mobility Commission in October 2017 which showed that three-quarters of nearly 5,000 adults surveyed in a YouGov poll supported banning lengthy unpaid internships.

As Lord Holmes writes in an article in Parliament’s Magazine, Politics Home: “One of the most pernicious ways in which the advantages of the fortunate few are entrenched is through the illegal yet widespread practice of unpaid internships.”

However, the bill hasn’t yet become law. Which means that in the meantime some unscrupulous employers will continue to take advantage of young and often desperate graduates who want to get a foot on the career ladder.

Tips for first Internship – Your Rights to the National Minimum Wage

So what are your rights as an intern? Under national minimum wage (NMW) legislation, interns must be paid if they count as a worker. This is defined as someone who has a contract (or a promise of a future contract) and has to turn up to work, even if they don’t want to.

However, there are exceptions. By law, employers do not have to pay interns the national minimum wage if they are doing it as part of a UK-based higher education course. Nor do they have to pay them if they are working for a charity or voluntary organisation and are receiving limited expenses for food and travel. (If interns are paid over and above this then they must receive the national minimum wage).

Also if the intern is only work-shadowing – ie. observing an employee and not carrying out any work themselves – companies don’t have to pay them either.

Internship guide. Young people with laptops sitting around a table.

Should I do an unpaid internship?

There is no doubt that company bosses are now waking up to the fact that lengthy unpaid internships are exploitative. Often this is because they realise that interns are their ambassadors.

Treat them badly and they will tell people that it’s a terrible place to work. Treat them well and they will sing the company’s praises to their friends and family.

Nevertheless, a quick search on Google reveals that unpaid internships aren’t going away any time soon. This is especially true in certain areas such as marketing, HR, fashion and journalism. However, should you consider an unpaid internship if needs must?

Yes, if you think it will help your career or if it’s flexible enough to give you the time you need to study or work elsewhere to make some money. No, if you are handed a contract and expected to work certain set hours doing a job that you should get money for!

Getting a good first internship

Obviously, the best internships are those that pay you a wage. However, this shouldn’t be the only criteria. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has produced some best practice guidelines for employers. These are available in its Internships that Work guide.

It advises companies to recruit interns through an open advert, in the same way as other employees. This is to prevent work experience jobs going to friends and family of the company’s bosses as so often happens. Interns should also have as much responsibility and diversity in their work as possible and have time off to attend job interviews elsewhere.

Finally, interns should receive a proper induction and an evaluation of their performance during their time within an organisation. Interns should also receive a reference letter when they leave.

Getting your foot on the career ladder is never easy. But at least with new legislation and more enlightened employers, it is becoming a more level playing field for all graduates, regardless of their background.

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