Internships more likely to be unpaid during pandemic, survey finds

Employers urged to consider the economic and personal pressures facing young people this year when asking them to work for free

Less than one in five students found work experience last year, while the opportunities available were more likely to be unpaid and in person, a survey has found.

A poll of more than 3,000 students, part of a report by Prospects, found that just 17 per cent of university, college and sixth-form students undertook work experience in the last year, with a quarter of students losing work experience placements because of the outbreak.

Of those that did find work experience, nearly three in five (59 per cent) said they had not been paid for their work, increasing to more than four in five (83 per cent) among sixth-form and college students.

Just over half (52 per cent) of university students said their internship was unpaid.

Students were also being asked to work for longer unpaid. More than three in five (62 per cent) university students reported working unpaid for more than four weeks last year, compared to two in five (41 per cent) of those polled in 2018. Similarly, more than a quarter (27 per cent) of college and sixth-form students worked more than four weeks unpaid last year, compared to 18 per cent in 2018.

Across all the students who did unpaid internships, 51 per cent worked for at least four weeks, with one in six (16 per cent) students working for more than six months unpaid.

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In the poll 44 per cent of those who found work experience said their internships were face to face, compared to 35 per cent that were solely online and 21 per cent who had a mix.

Jayne Rowley, executive director for student services at Jisc, which owns Prospects, said social distancing and lockdown restrictions had “decimated” the availability of work experience for young people.

“Those graduating this summer may be entering the workplace for the first time as a flexible or home worker, including remote induction and onboarding, without any onsite experience behind them,” said Rowley. “It’s vital that careers professionals, employers and educators come together to make work experience work this year.”

Rowley also called on employers to consider the economic and personal pressures facing young people this year when asking them to work unpaid or to come into the workplace for their internship, adding that unpaid internships have always favoured those from more affluent backgrounds.

“Social mobility is a casualty of Covid-19 and unpaid internships are part of the problem,” she said.

Separately, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) yesterday called for a “major reboot” of the UK’s adult skills training provision in the UK to help resolve skills shortages faced by businesses.

The report, the findings of the Workplace Training and Development Commission of businesses and education and training providers, established by the BCC, called for businesses to be given greater say in what skills training was provided at local levels, and for smaller firms to be given help identifying and investing in skills in their workforce.

Jane Boardman, chair of the commission, said a lack of skills had made it harder for employers to fill vacancies. “The impact of the pandemic has made investing in adult skills more important than ever,” she said. “Employers need a more joined-up and flexible system that can respond quickly to skills needs and opportunities.”