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They are an increasingly common way of easing young people into the world of work throughout the developed world; but are they fair? Internships have been criticised as a way that companies can get cheap, even free labour without offering anything in return. Despite this disadvantage – most common in the professions for which entry is highly competitive, because they are seen as eventually well-paid or glamorous – young people are fighting for internships with companies and in professions that seem highly attractive.
And it is precisely this that makes internships potentially unfair from two other points of view. Internships that are intensely competed-for are often created in an ad-hoc manner, and it’s hard to find out about them, let alone compete for them in an environment that is open to kids of all abilities and social backgrounds. Very often a company will try a new employee through an internship because existing employees, at a high level, want to give an opportunity to friends, family and people within their ‘network.’ The principle of free, fair and open competition does not apply.
The other disadvantage for an ordinary kid wanting a start in advertising, finance, law, media, etc, all professions which extensively use the internship scheme, is that they would be unable to support themselves during 3 month periods of reduced or indeed no wages at all while they gather necessary experience. It is inevitably the children of families that are able to subsidies their sons and daughters for long periods that benefit from internship schemes that are increasingly, in a tough job market, getting away with paying young hopefuls nothing at all.
A new development is companies that promise to find and place students in internships for a fee. After the hopeful parents pay the fee, the companies have been known to actually charge the worker for the privilege of working for them and getting the much sought-after work experience.
From the companies point of view, one wonders if the short-term benefit of using young people as cheap or free or even paying labour and acquiring them from the known networks of the wealthy isn’t in the long-term outweighed by the disadvantage of always drawing new recruits from the same social strata and, inevitably having to take weak, less intelligent, less skilful and talented workers.
The competitive health of a company surely resides in its ability to attract the brightest and most able kids irrespective of where they came from and their social background and class. Employing a young person straight out of university, having put them through a rigorous interview and training process, but offering them a secure, reasonably-paid contract would be a mark of confidence not just in the student but in the companies' ability to recognise and groom young talent.