It is quite a challenging time to be a young person in the UK trying to make your way into job market. Last week the Higher Education Commission published a report in which they argued that, with very high fees precluding many young people from obtaining postgraduate qualifications, the provision of postgraduate education in the UK was “the next social mobility timebomb”. And only yesterday we learnt that Tony Blair’s profit-making companies will agree to pay their previously unpaid interns after it was exposed that they might be in violation of National Minimum Wage (NMW) legislation.
As someone who has recently completed a masters degree and who is currently doing a (paid!) internship for the RSA, I feel close to both of these issues. But I also think that together they reveal a way in which the unpaid internship debate has been misconceived.
Tony Blair’s companies are certainly not the only organisations that are in violation of the NMW regulations, which outline what ‘work’ looks like and stipulate that anything that falls into that category must be paid. And I’m sure that more organisations will be shamed or coerced into paying the previously unpaid interns who they had been far too happy to exploit for far too long. This is undeniably a good thing. But I think that it is probably also true that some organisations simply wouldn’t be able to offer the internships that they currently do if they were forced to pay the NMW, particularly in these straitened economic times. Many young people benefit greatly from doing short periods of unpaid work to escape from the ‘need experience to get experience’ vicious cycle, and it seems a shame to deny them this option. If we were put to one side the obviously cynical and exploitative internships (big 'if', I know), how should we think about this latter kind of case?
An advocate of the all unpaid internships must be paid NMW argument might say that that we don’t typically allow the market to set people’s wages below an acceptable minimum – let alone to zero. And, as unfortunate as it is that some poor people will no longer benefit from selling their labour for below the minimum wage but more than they would receive otherwise, the NMW is needed to protect the living standards and preserve the dignity of the whole class of low-paid workers. I generally agree with this argument – particularly if you replaced NMW with a living wage that actually would protect living standards and dignity. But I think that it is flawed when applied to many internships because it conceives of them too rigidly as ‘work’.
Think of the young person trying to break the ‘need experience to get experience’ cycle. They are often not looking for an internship in order to provide for themselves and their family, but instead they are looking for an internship to in order to furnish themselves with the skills and experiences needed to get their first job. In fact, I think that we already sense that internships aren’t really jobs and shouldn’t be conceived as if they were. Imagine the bemused response you’d receive if someone asked you what you did for a living and you replied: “I’m a professional Intern!” Such a reply would suggest that you have misunderstood what an internship was for.
This way of conceiving internships – as a kind of training for the professions – is fundamentally different from the simple ‘they should all be paid NMW view’ because it challenges the assumption that internships should be distributed according to (regulated) market principles in the first place. If internships are more like education or training than work, and if that training is near-essential – which I think the need for an internship is fast becoming – then they must be accessible to everyone regardless of their socio-economic or regional background. The simple ‘they must be paid NMW’ view actually says nothing to those people who need to get essential experience but would find it very difficult if there are fewer internships around.
This way of viewing internships is, however, no endorsement of the status –quo. In fact, two striking implications follow: 1) internships must be subject to some kind of quality control; and 2) there must be some mechanism to enable all people to have access to them regardless of their background. This view casts internships as much more like vocational or postgraduate education. The recent Higher Education Commission’s report referred to above recommended that there be a postgraduate loan scheme to fund postgraduate education and make it accessible to people from all backgrounds. This seems like a good proposal and I think that it should apply to internships too.
I have obviously not referred to the elephant in the room: why is there this need for a bridge between education and work in the first place? Do young people really lack the skills allegedly acquired via internships and, if they do, why? If they don’t, why are employers not tacking them on? These questions point to another blog post (or book), and are probably above a lowly interns pay grade.