Forget swimming pools and bra hunts, it's time for the Great Intern Debate

December 17, 2012

     By Duncan Green     

swimming pools or bra hunts. There had been a bit of a lull on this front until I wandered unintentionally into another minefield – unpaid internships – during a recent post on how to get a job in development. Cue blizzard of comments, tweets, denunciations etc etc. So I’ve read the comments, and Public World’s excellent briefing, and talked to those responsible in Oxfam, and here’s my take on the debate. First, allow me a bit of self-defence. The post was intended as advice to young people trying to enter the development world as it currently david-sipress-the-word-slave-is-so-degrading-why-don-t-we-call-you-intern-new-yorker-cartoon is, not as it ought to be. I realize that some people may take that as an implicit endorsement of the status quo (which it isn’t), but I still refuse to advise them to boycott the intern system and so reduce their chances of eventual success. Now, back to the interns debate. The arguments against unpaid internships are several:

  • They’re unfair, because (despite a few exceptions) they skew career progression towards those best able to work for free (middle-class kids, or people able to rely on spouses), and so introduce a class bias from the outset.
  • They impose yet more financial burdens on students already staggering under their university debts
  • By not putting a financial value on interns, they encourage sloppy or abusive management (interns making coffee, doing the photocopying etc). Abuses seem particularly bad in fashion and media – Oxfam has pretty strict guidelines to prevent this kind of thing and ensure that interns do actually get useful CV content out of their time – take a look, they’re pretty good.
  • More systemically, they normalize the use of unpaid labour, and so undermine labour rights across the workforce.
But there are several arguments for unpaid internships:
  • They’re not actually unpaid, in the broader sense that interns derive non-pecuniary benefits like skills and experience (which is, after all, why they do them)
  • They provide a great way for employers to spot strong candidates for paid jobs (indeed, they’re a much better assessment than standard job interviews – maybe all job recruitments should include a week’s work for the shortlisted candidates, to test whether what they say in the interview is true?)
  • If internships are paid, there will be fewer of them – I don’t buy the crude ‘NGOs can afford to pay’ – there is obviously some kind of elasticity of employment with respect to paying wages, the question is how great it is.
From the excellent comments, several additional issues emerged: The role of government: Opinions differ on whether it is now harder or easier to claim benefits while interning. A lot of the commenters suggest the former, but our interns guru, Georgia Boon (herself a former Oxfam shop volunteer) thinks that for the bulk of charity volunteers, ‘claiming benefits became pretty much unrestricted under the Labour Government and hasn’t changed back’. Oxfam’s Intern Agreement includes guidance on how to claim benefits while interning, and its internship scheme tries to reflect that, for example by placing a ceiling on intern hours. Another key concern for interns is the cost of housing, and here there were some great suggestions for how we could make it easier to find cheap accommodation for interns, for example in unused university rooms over the summer. The-Devil-Wears-Prada-Fil-008Career ladders: I think there’s a much wider problem with NGOs and career ladders. Getting onto the first rung is hard enough, but then the path up the career ladder is also really difficult – overall, I think NGOs don’t invest as much as companies and governments do in areas such as graduate entry, fast track career progression etc, so perhaps it’s not surprising that we find real difficulty recruiting for more senior positions. Economics v Mission: Various comments pointed out that diverting £8,000 per year into paying a living wage (£8 per hour for 20 hours a week) would mean £8,000 less spent elsewhere in Oxfam’s work. That has to be true (unless we could raise extra money to pay for interns – anyone want to buy their mum an intern for Christmas rather than a goat?). But there are wider considerations about what social justice and what NGOs are doing to ‘be the change you want to see in the world’. Or if you want to put that into management speak – the reputational risk of perceived double standards. We face the same cost v reputation balancing act on carbon emissions or sourcing fair-trade products, for example. Legal concerns: There seems to be a lot of confusion over whether not paying interns will eventually be challenged under minimum wage legislation, or conversely, whether paying them a minimum wage will confer full employment status (and so effectively abolish internships). The key seems to be ‘if it looks and feels like work’, with regular hours, having to request time off, formal appraisals etc, then at some point a judge is going to say that it is work, with all that implies. Complicating all this is the blurred boundary between interns and volunteers. Oxfam has thousands of great volunteers running our shops, campaigning etc, who donate their time in support of our work. Interns are doing something else, usually younger, and giving their time in exchange for some hope of career development. Given the criticism heaped on internships of late, we have considered changing the name of the scheme to something like ‘project volunteers’, but the interns objected – they see internship as a useful addition to their CVs. The upshot of all this is that I am genuinely torn. I know from watching my kids’ generation emerge from university just how hard ainternship-3 struggle it is to find a job, and to survive as an intern. But I don’t completely buy the idea that paying a minimum wage or slightly higher would transform the class composition of entry level NGO staff – the barriers to diversity are more complex and pervasive than that (when Oxfam did briefly try a graduate entry scheme a decade or so ago, the applicants were less diverse than our normal volunteer intake). And I do think that paying interns would reduce the number of internships (though I have no idea by how much). So in time honoured FP2P fashion, I will stay firmly on the fence and let you, the readers, decide (see poll, right) albeit in a non-binding sort of way. But here’s the question I want you to vote on – please read it carefully before voting: “In pursuit of fairness and a diverse workforce, NGOs should pay a living wage to interns, even if that means fewer internships are available, and some funds are diverted from other uses.” Over to you and thanks to those who responded to my twitter request to send in cartoons. Winning entry so far goes to Makarand for this Dilbert classic (but keep sending in your favourites): Intern1]]>

December 17, 2012
Duncan Green