Unlocking the door to potential: why unpaid internships should be banned

by Ruby Nightingale, the Sutton Trust

At the Sutton Trust, we’ve been looking at the educational backgrounds of those in Britain’s top professions for the last two decades. Over this time, we’ve followed the rise of unpaid internships, finding that now over a quarter of graduates have taken on an unpaid internship.

We see unpaid internships as one of the biggest barriers to social mobility and diversity in the workplace. In many competitive industries like the media, internship experience is required to even access entry level jobs. The experiences and contacts gained in these internships can be invaluable to a young person’s career, however, very few can afford the luxury of working unpaid.

Social mobility, the potential for people to achieve success regardless of their background, is vital in the workplace. This year, we found that Britain’s most powerful people were five times more likely to have been to a fee-paying school than the general population. This matters because these people make decisions that have an impact on our day-to-day lives, and a lack of diversity at the top is likely to impact the rest of the population.

The media plays an extremely important role in shaping the national conversation and have significant influence in which stories are reported on and how they are covered. We found that Britain’s media, including newspaper columnists, and high-profile editors and broadcasters, had some of the highest rates of attendance at independent schools and elite higher education institutions.

Pay

Pay is one of the biggest barriers to accessing internships. Last year, our analysis found that an unpaid internship in London will cost a single person a minimum of £1,100 in London, and £885 in Manchester. For many young people, this is simply out of reach.

We also found that there are big differences in the pay that interns receive across sectors. Media has one of the highest rates of unpaid placements, with 83% of internships in the sector unpaid. Media also has the highest proportion of internships with no renumeration whatsoever, while expenses-paid internships are prevalent in other sectors such as politics and charity.

For those interns who do manage to take on unpaid work, they have to find other ways to fund their placement. Middle-class interns are more likely to receive money from their parents and have savings they can use, while those from working class backgrounds are more likely to take on extra paid work to support themselves.

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Another key obstacle to accessing internships is how opportunities are advertised. Many opportunities are offered informally, to friends and family of staff, clients or important stakeholders. This locks out young people without the professional networks and connections needed to secure these roles.

In the media, many internships resulted from the intern approaching an organisation directly. This means that young people need the knowledge that they should be doing this and how to approach it, and more-advantaged young people are more likely to have the social and cultural capital to promote themselves and find opportunities.

Across all sectors, we found that middle class interns were more likely to use personal connections to obtain internships, while those from working class backgrounds were more likely to find the internship through their educational institution.

While many internships taking place are already illegal under current minimum wage law, we know that both employers and young people don’t have a good understanding of the law as it stands. The Sutton Trust is campaigning for the government to introduce a new law which would completely ban any unpaid internships over four weeks in length. This would add an additional safeguard to prevent the long unpaid placements which are so damaging for social mobility.

We recommend that all employers, regardless of the law, should pay their interns at least the National Minimum Wage, and preferably the Living Wage. As well as breaking down the barriers to accessing internships, this also allows employers to take advantage of a wider talent pool, rather than just drawing from the small group of people who can afford to work for free.

We’d also like employers to think about their recruitment practices when hiring interns, and ensure that all internship positions are advertised publicly and that all recruitment processes are fair, transparent, and based on merit.

If the media industry is serious about improve the socio-economic diversity of those at the top, we need to get rid of unpaid internships once and for all.

The Sutton Trust has fought for social mobility since 1997. Working in partnership with the UK’s leading universities and educational organisations, the Trust aims to ensure that every young person, regardless of background, has the opportunity to succeed!

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