Interning and the voluntary sector – a fair deal for employee and employer?

The current state of the economy has led many to the door of the local job centre, but one group in particular has felt the harsh effects of recession. With graduate unemployment currently standing at 14% (Hepi Report 2010), many graduates are realising that a good degree is not enough to get them on the career ladder. So they’re turning to internships to get their foot in the door.

Scrutinising your CV as another job rejection letter comes through the door you realise that maybe it’s going to take something more to get you out of that dead end temp job and into that dream job. Suddenly the idea of working without being paid starts to look strangely appealing. As an intern myself that’s exactly what I thought! But is using interns a fair way for the voluntary sector to weather this particular economic storm?

Recent research has found that 1 in 5 employers planned to hire interns between April and September 2010: this is an increase of just 13% of employers in 2009 ('Why Interns need a fair wage' Institute for Public Policy Research 2010). It’s not difficult to be cynical about these figures – paid employment decreases but unpaid opportunities increase. A clear conclusion is that some less scrupulous employers may be using interns as a source of cheap labour.

Internships offer a brilliant opportunity for inexperienced graduates to gain knowledge and experience in their chosen field. They are particularly useful for the charity sector where employers rely heavily not on the quality of someone’s qualifications but on other, soft, unlearnt skills as an indicator of ability. If the intern system wasn’t in place it is unlikely new graduates would be given the opportunity to develop these skills. Jobs would go to those with experience, especially at the moment when competition for jobs is fierce. Alongside this, the lack of fresh ideas which new entrants to the sector can bring with them could lead to development stagnating.

The addition of an intern into the workplace can have its benefits for the employer as well as the employee. A fresh faced intern, looking to impress in the hope of some meaningful paid employment may be bubbling with new ideas, while an unpaid position is a good way to weed out those who aren’t passionate about the role. But beware if you think an intern will point out faults and revolutionise the way you work - those who are after a job are unlikely to rock the boat too much!

The often quoted criticism of internships is that they benefit those from better off backgrounds whose parents can support them.  With 18% of internships being unpaid (Institute for Public Policy Research 2010) and the majority based in London, are you in danger of creating a homogenous workforce full of middle class southerners? By creating this type of workforce are you employing those who are unable to relate to the people you help? The lack of a wage doesn’t only affect those from a less well off background. Why should any adult be forced to go cap in hand to their parents for support or get into further debt to fund an internship with no guarantee of a job at the end? Equally importantly, why should parents be forced to assist their children when they have already struggled with the costs of a university education?

The answer to this could be to ensure internships are paid. However this can lead to problems - if an organisation is paying someone to do a job, what is the incentive for them to hire inexperienced staff? One suggestion has been to pay a ‘training wage’ lower than the minimum wage, similar to what is on offer to apprentices. This would retain the incentive for organisations to hire inexperienced staff. The problem with this is that it won’t change the constitution of those who take part in internships. Being able to support yourself on less than the minimum wage would be difficult, and with the majority of internships based in London it would be almost impossible. This question has a particular resonance for the voluntary sector. Employing interns could undermine key issues a charity is campaigning on, for example.

So how do I think charities should use interns in the future? Offering internships in regional offices could be one possibility. This stops the London bias of many positions and having an extra pair of hands could benefit a smaller office. If you are currently using interns or thinking about it for the future, a formalised recruitment process could be instigated. Drawing up a job description will help the charity decide exactly what they want an intern for. This might also help you decide if you really need an intern. Ask yourself if you would pay a member of staff to do the job if we were in a better economic climate. If not, do you need an intern? While a cheap source of labour might look good, can you survive without it? Also be aware, employment law regarding internships is currently a legal grey area regarding pay and working hours.

Last updated at 14:49 Fri 26/Nov/10.
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