Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 23 August 2009

The trouble with interns

Martin Bright has done a couple of posts recently where he has highlighted Phillip Hammond's use of an intern and also his justification of this by claiming it would be an abuse of taxpayer's money not to use the free labour available.

Over the years I have seen this issue pop up from time to time. The main problem is that when a company to utilises free labour, the intern is effectively subsidising the company for a while. They can only do this if they have independent means and the young people who are able to tend to be from more privileged backgrounds where their parents can afford to subsidise them for a while. This seems unjust and means that people from poorer backgrounds are to an extent being shut out of certain professions (especially in say the media when internships are commonplace).

On the other hand companies I am sure would argue that they are giving a good opportunity to people that would not be available if the intern/unpaid route was not available.

I do think it is odd though that we have a minimum wage law in this country and yet we also have a way for companies to get round this and effectively pay some staff nothing at all. It seems a little inconsistent.

I have to say I do not know what the answer is to this. Banning internships is not a route I would be comfortable going down. At the same time, especially in the current economic conditions I fear that an increase in this sort of unpaid Labour is only going to be bad for social mobility.

I am interested to hear other people's thoughts on this.


Unknown said...

I think you make a good point about the social mobility aspect. I agree with you that banning the practice of hiring interns would be wrong.

I wondered if there was some way of arranging it so that people who needed to find paid employment could intern on a part time basis, but would that set them apart in some way? Might it even make them more employable, on the other hand because they've combined roles like that?

Experience as an intern in political institutions can be invaluable - and many of our campaigns people, particularly in Scotland, came to us through the Scottish Party's interns programme.

These took place at this kind of time of year so new graduates who hadn't found work were able to enjoy a taster of what life working in politics could be like.

Perhaps we need to look at some way of long term funding to enable people who wouldn't otherwise be able to, to work in Westminster - maybe through legacies or something like that. I don't know. Good issue to raise, though.

Mark Pack said...

"Interns" is a very broad category, and within it there are some groups where the existence of interns is beneficial for social mobility.

For example, one small group of political interns are people returning to the job market, e.g. mothers who took time out to bring up children. The option of interning usually helps open up options for such people in a way that is good for them and good overall.

Similarly, some MPs are very good at getting a very diverse (in terms of ethnicity, religion and gender) stream of interns, and in the long run that helps make politics and political parties more diverse on those criteria. Again, I think that's to the good.

Interning can also be an effective way of putting a toe in the water to think about a career change and again open up options that wouldn't otherwise be available. (I used to have an intern who was an ex-postman and decided he wanted to do something different. He got his foot in the door of the IT industry by interning and is now a very successul IT manager.)

It's a shame though that the debate is often polarised around interns yes/no rather than how to get more of the benefits out of how a well running intern scheme can work.

Anonymous said...

There's always going to be people willing to work for nothing (because usually they're getting something far more valuable than money - experience working in a particular field).

In the case of the media, demand for media jobs far far far exceeds the available positions, so the value of certain unskilled positions like runners is effectively zero.

I don't consider it to be exploitative - the value of having certain things on your CV, meeting people within certain industries etc far outweighs the cash reward.

The problem isn't so much the internships, it's the people are excluded for because they can't afford to live without a wage.

I don't see why someone who's on benefits and otherwise employed shouldn't be allowed to take an internship. It's in the interest of taxpayers to make sure people living off the state are doing whatever they can to get work - sometimes you just have to work for nothing to prove you can do something.

It is, perhaps, worth pondering whether or not the existence of the minimum wage is other costs of employing people (employer's NI contributions, insurance etc) is one of the reasons there's more internships rather than paid 'junior' positions that aren't actually worth minimum wage to the employers.

Anonymous said...

That should have been "otherwise unemployed".. doh.

asquith said...

You're quite right, Charlotte.

The majority of benefit claimants, especially in this recession, are genuinely unable tyo find paid jobs. Large minorities of them are unskilled, underconfident & let's face it, people that I wouldn't employ & nor would any sane employer.

They should be not only allowed but encouraged to volunteer. I have seen a few signs of this but not enough. It is a lot better at getting people into jobs than paying a fortune to consultants who will do all kinds of amazing ruses to get their fees, the interests of the clients regardless, & if they go into short-term work & back on benefits usually these companies are happy & so is the government, but the poor wretch in that situation isn't & nor am I.

There should not, though, be any compulsion. I think "force people to people work for their benefits" stems more from vindictiveness than any kind of well thought through idea.

Because in reality, forcing people to do a job is more trouble than it's worth. It won't help them get a job or a better attitude & they're going to be utterly shite at whatever they do anyway.

There will be a selection mechanism because only some will put themselves forward. Those, such as intelligent but poorly educated & nervous single parents or immigrants, who express an interest but aren't sure, will find more than enough encouragement from the third-sector bodies they volunteer for.

Your stereotypical chavs- surely having them sit at home costs less & is less hassle than trying to make them do things. A single unemployed person is going to have a shite life, & especially if living at home the financial advantages of having a job are obvious.

The problems really arise with generational welfare dependency, a thorny issue which I think I'll duck right now :)

asquith said...

PS- This is about volunteering (hicvh I used to do & like to imagine I know about) rather than political internship, which is much harder.

But I think now politicians are under the microscope we shouldn't rule out any radical action, bold measures & other cliches.

Mark Thompson said...

Thanks for the comments folks. Sorry I couldn't join in over the weekend - I've been away.

Mark - Some interesting points and I appreciate it is a broader category than I perhaps implied in my posting.

Charlotte - Your comment is spot on about benefits. Why shouldn't interns be able to claim full benefits whilst they are working for nothing? An internship is surely a good route to full employment later, probably better than anything the Job Centre can offer anyway?