The number of internships available in the UK and their damaging effect on social mobility has been dramatically underestimated, according to an influential new report – which blames some HR departments for reserving lucrative job opportunities for friends and family.
The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) said that while around 11,000 internships were advertised each year, the real number on offer was closer to 70,000.
Not only do many of these 60,000 additional positions not offer meaningful learning opportunities or working conditions, they entrench privilege because they are largely inaccessible to those without connections or knowhow, it has been claimed. They also discourage businesses from investing in graduate or other permanent recruitment.
Many such internships are also unpaid; the IPPR said that while there is a lack of data on unpaid internships as they are often informal or even illegal, it has been estimated that one in five does not offer a wage.
The report, The inbetweeners: The new role of internships in the graduate labour market, suggested that access to the most competitive professions appeared to be governed by people’s ability to source and fund unpaid internships.
It said the total number of internship opportunities had risen by as much as 50 per cent since 2010, while the number of advertised graduate-entry jobs sharply declined over the same period.
Publishing, media and the arts were named as particularly inaccessible to graduates from poorer backgrounds, while the creative industries as a whole had a high concentration of internships.
The IPPR also cited anecdotal evidence that many large banks had specific HR professionals in place to “look after internships for people who are either sons of clients or top executives within the bank” – though it did not offer further evidence or commentary around this finding.
Katerina Rudiger, chief community officer at the CIPD, said the government needed to do more to “ensure legislation around unpaid internships is clear and both young people and employers are familiar with it.
“Employers need to pay the minimum wage, advertise positions openly and have a fair and transparent recruitment process. They also need to make sure that internships are high quality and provide the intern with some real experience of the job in question, but without replacing any paid staff.”
But Rudiger stopped short of calling for legislation, suggesting: “The industry must be self-regulating, and employers need to lead by example and speak openly about their approach to internships.”
The latest findings, however, will only increase the likelihood of regulation in this area. In November 2015, employment minister Damian Hinds said the government was reviewing the workings of unpaid internships as part of prime minister Theresa May's pledge to “make Britain work for all, not just the rich”.
Ministers were also said to be considering banning unpaid internships to give young people from lower-income families a “fair crack” at creating careers in the most competitive industries.
The IPPR report found that internships were now considered a ‘must have’ on young people’s CVs, with almost half of employers admitting that, without work experience, applicants had ‘little or no chance’ of receiving a job offer.
Focus groups it hosted with graduates illustrated that “discrimination, low confidence in navigating opaque recruitment practices and a lack of knowledge in how to find good placements can prevent young people from less privileged backgrounds from securing an internship”.
The report concluded: “In short, internships are acting as a barrier to social mobility, rather than being a driver of it.”
IPPR research fellow Carys Roberts said internships were “closed off to many” despite being essential routes into leading professions.
“It is extremely difficult to access internships in many sectors, and it’s those with the connections, knowhow and financial means who find it easiest to gain entry. For internships to help social mobility, universities, employers and government should act together to increase the overall availability of internships, and minimise any barriers to take-up for those who are disadvantaged.”
The IPPR suggested that unpaid internships lasting longer than four weeks should be banned in private companies. It also advocated introducing a ‘national opportunity programme’ offering residential internships for disadvantaged young people, giving every university student access to a brokered work placement and establishing a new association to give a stronger voice to interns.