>As competition for jobs reaches an all time high, Aminah Jagne explores the world of internships and whether they really are accessible to all…
The National Statistic’s survey of the labour market has reported that unemployment is at its highest since 1995 and in the last ten years alone the number of recent graduates has risen by 41% to 1.5 million. As a result, the percentage of graduates in ‘lower skilled’ jobs (jobs that don’t “generally require competence through post-compulsory education”) has risen to over 35%. Competition is fierce and with more people obtaining degrees, it appears that higher education is no longer a guaranteed stepping stone to ‘higher skilled’ jobs. Today, much more emphasis is placed on obtaining work experience via internships in order to give CVs more substance.
The devaluation of graduates with less experience has also been encouraged by popular television programmes. Shows like ‘Made in Chelsea’ romanticise the roles of interns, inciting more people to apply. However anyone who has prowled the market for an internship in the past, or managed to obtain one, will know that these idealised representations are highly unrealistic. Most internships are unpaid, regardless of length, and ever increasingly exploitative.
Currently the debt students will leave university with averages around £21,000; soon to be around £60,000 for those starting in 2012. This, coupled with no guarantee of a paid position at the end of an internship renders taking one up unpaid, unfeasible for most. Often the most prolific work experience opportunities and therefore entry level jobs are only open to those who can afford it, providing an unfair advantage to the wealthy.

Working 9 til 5 - during an unpaid internship, make sure you're not being over-worked

Furthermore, over the past year, concerns surrounding the exploitative nature of internships are becoming more public. The option of employing easily replaceable graduates to do junior level work for free, by labelling the position as an ‘internship’, is obviously appealing to employers and is becoming increasingly common practice.
Despite the downsides, internships can be extremely helpful, allowing students to determine whether their chosen industry suits them. Work experience also allows you to adjust to the world of employment, something that university – try as it might with GDP – can’t do. Working eight hours a day, five days a week, is far cry from ten contact hours a week and the odd study session on the side. Internships allow for practical rather than book-based learning, enhancing skills that may not be utilised at university.
One of the most important advantages of work experience is the opportunity to network, opening doors after graduation for future prospects.
Even with these benefits, what about the costs or working full time hours for no pay and essentially being mistreated?
Never fear, all is not lost. If finance is the problem, UWE has a brilliant solution. The University’s internship scheme provides £1000 funding and support to employers for each student that they provide a placement for. Each internship is then advertised with a salary of up to £250 per week. There is a huge variety of placements which can be viewed by logging into UWE’s careers website InfoHub (www.infohub.uwe.ac.uk).
If you decide to do an internship, when it comes to avoiding exploitation, knowledge is the ultimate key. The Trade Union Congress has compiled a list of rights for interns that can be found at www.rightsforinterns.org.uk. This site will help to determine if you are being treated unfairly or not.
Also, websites such as internsanonymous.co.uk and graduatefog.co.uk list the experience of other interns and provide up-to-date coverage of news stories about legislations that could affect interns in future.
Care must be taken when entering any new territory, and the same rules apply when agreeing to work for potentially manipulative companies.  Nevertheless, internships can still be a win-win situation, both for the employer and the employee. Just make sure you know what you’re doing and go into them equally aware and alert.

Aminah Jagne