An unpaid six month internship costs graduates at least £5,000, according to a study by The Sutton Trust. The social mobility charity has analysed interns’ expenditure on rent, food, transport and other bills while working for free, and found that the average half-year placement in London costs over £6,000. The figure for Manchester was only marginally less ruinous, at slightly over £5,000.
While seven out of ten Britons now believe that unpaid internships are unfair because they make top graduate jobs the preserve of the rich, one third of interns don’t receive a wage. My year at Oxford are approaching our penultimate summer as undergraduates, and internships are the hot topic. Financial considerations are key: McKinsey and Co. is the most sought-after summer destination among my friends, in part because they pay their interns enough to live in London for the duration of the placement.
One of my friends comes from Northern Ireland and, with no sofa to crash on in London, her choices are substantially restricted. She wants to be a corporate solicitor, but told me that 'if I wanted to be a barrister it’d be unpaid, and there’s just nothing I could do that would be very useful to me'. Even with her choice of firm she’s restricted: 'I have to go to a big company that has a small section doing what I want to do, rather than going to a boutique firm that does exactly what I want to do, because they don’t pay'.
Unpaid internships are a disaster for social mobility, but it’s very hard to know what to do about them. Most big companies do now pay their interns: many of my friends aren’t thinking as far ahead as the company car and seven-figure salary when they sign up to careers in investment banking, merely of the financially feasible summer placements. If your childhood dream is to be the next Bob Diamond, you’re fine, but for aspiring policy makers, journalists, charity workers and curators, things are less rosy.
But that doesn’t mean that we should ban unpaid internships. Small organisations understandably don’t want to use up their budget on interns, so the choice in some sectors is between lots of unpaid opportunities or hardly any opportunities at all.
Instead, companies should consider the possibility of work-from-home internship options. The biggest access barriers to any unpaid internship are rent and transport costs, but many of an intern’s responsibilities could be carried out from home. Research, website-updating, proof-reading and report-writing need just the internet and a desk, and perhaps an initial induction day at the office.
The work-from-home scenario is, of course, far less exciting than the chance to live in London and work with professionals, but it’s infinitely better than no work experience at all. For many interns, a work-from-home placement would also be preparing them well for their future careers: 4.2 million Britons now work from home, representing a rise of 30 per cent since 1998.
They might be an American import, but they’ve caught on: graduates need at least one impressive internship under their belt. Banning unpaid placements serves only to restrict opportunities to those lucky enough to find financial services fascinating. Let the rest of us intern from home – you wouldn’t be able to ask us for a cup of tea, but you aren’t supposed to anyway.