Unpaid internships in the city

The cost of living in a major city borders on the extreme, meaning many youngsters simply cannot afford to gain valuable experience offered by unpaid internships, harming social mobility in the process


Young people around the world will be familiar with this paradox. In order to get a job you need experience, but how do you get experience if you cannot get a job? It is a concept that every graduate or school leaver will be familiar with. At least they will be once the initial excitement of the job search wears off, after they are regretfully informed for the umpteenth time that their application has failed to impress because they don’t have the relevant experience.

In order to escape the torment of a lifetime in unemployment limbo, many youngsters are turning to internships as a means of breaking the paradox and gaining some valuable experience that will hopefully help them take the first step in securing a full-time role. However, competition in the paid internships market is just as fierce as it is applying for a permanent position. Out of sheer desperation many end up applying for expenses only or even completely unpaid roles just to get their hands on that most elusive of things – experience.

Many youngsters are turning to internships as a means of breaking the paradox and gaining some valuable experience that will hopefully help them take the first step in securing a full-time role

Upping the expectations
The growth in internships – particularly unpaid ones – is raising some serious concerns. According to a , a think-tank that works to combat educational inequality in the UK, working for nothing favours the rich and hinders social mobility, which is why it is campaigning for all internships to pay at least the minimum wage.

With many of the best opportunities existing in big capital cities like London and Manhattan, for those that are thinking about embarking on an unpaid internship they face being hit by high living costs, and when considering that the average stint at one of these unpaid internships is usually for a minimum of three months, the price of experience adds up quickly.

When a close friend of mine took an unpaid placement in order to try and gain some experience at a production company, he had to commute to central London from the suburbs. His travel alone was £280 a month. But at least he had the benefit of living on the outskirts of the Big Smoke, along with the knowledge that once his long hard day of being paid absolutely nothing was finally over; he could head back to a home-cooked meal from mum and rest in the warmth of his own bed.

For those living a little further afield, a daily commute is simply impossible. The only other options open to someone looking to gain experience in the big city are to a) find a family member or two who do not mind a bit of couch surfing; or b) look for some form of accommodation nearby. For those who opt to live in London, the price of a three-month stint is bordering on extortion. The Sutton Trust’s report calculated that interns could expect to pay at least £926 per month (and that is excluding transport costs), which will add at least a further £120 onto your bill.

Prices like these mean that unpaid internships and, therefore, potentially valuable experience is restricted to those with the necessary means. What that really equates to is that those graduates, whose parents can afford to bankroll their little one through the process, will have access to these unpaid opportunities that give them an edge in the job market. While those on the other side of the tracks, whose parents make a moderate wage or those who are barely scraping by, will have to accept work closer to home.

City living
No doubt many will be wondering why that it is a problem? Why is everyone so obsessed with working in London anyway? Well, that has a lot to do with the investment gap between the capital and the rest of England, which has grown substantially in recent years. Figures from a research report carried out by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) show that Londoners receive £5,203 more per person in terms of capital investment than residents in the northeast of England, making London a highly attractive place to do business. This leads to top companies establishing operations in the capital, bringing with them highly sought after employment opportunities.

The cost of living in London, where most of the best opportunities lie, means that access to unpaid internships is restricted disproportionately to those from wealthier families, which in turn is dramatically hampering social mobility for those that come from more modest backgrounds. A recent report by the UK government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission showed that 71 percent of senior judges, 55 percent of the most senior civil servants, 43 percent of newspaper columnists, and 33 percent of MPs were privately educated – compared with only seven percent of the general population.

Social mobility has always been a topic for debate, as a result of individuals from privileged backgrounds historically having an edge in the job market, but looking at it objectively, why should we fix it? Why should we put a stop to unpaid internships?

Well, the reason has nothing to do with a moral imperative or anything to do with social justice. It comes down to economics. In macroeconomics, an investment multiplier is a term that relates to the idea that if capital is ploughed into a public or private venture, a ripple effect occurs, generating a positive impact for the overall economy. For example, the billions being invested on infrastructure projects, such as London’s Crossrail will have untold benefits for the British economy. Why? Because the extra cash supplied by the UK government to improve the railways will mean that contractors hired to carry out the work on the project will see their incomes increase, leaving them more disposable cash that they may choose to splurge in the retail sector, which in turn boosts that sectors overall income and so on. You get the picture.

Now consider internships. Imagine the government worked alongside business to put some serious investment behind apprenticeship programmes, creating a system that resembled the kind our grandparents’ generation were privy to. Imagine apprenticeships that offered a means of gaining hands on experience in a particular trade or profession, along with adequate remuneration. It would do more than just help young people find work. It would give them independence, and not just from parents, but from the state. It would give them disposable income that would help fuel and sustain the economy, and would allow companies to compliment formal education in order to develop the talent necessary to meet the growing skills gap. In short, putting an end to unpaid internships would be great for everyone’s finances.

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