We’re in yet another cycle of media attention and Twitter scrutiny about unpaid internships. A classic example of what this involves is the Guardian’s recent shaming of Housing Minister Dominic Raab for advertising the role of an unpaid intern (the official job title is “volunteer”) to work 3-4 days a week in Westminster.

Somehow, the fact that not paying someone for their labour is a bad thing is now up for debate. We can see the extent of this in the quasi-defence of unpaid internships which has emerged, asserting that because people can do well later due to undertaking an unpaid internship these positions must be a good thing. Essentially, if there are people willing to take an unpaid internship, they can’t be that bad a thing. This, of course, ignores the people who couldn’t take an unpaid internship (read: everyone who doesn’t live in London, and a lot of the people who do). This quasi-defence, therefore, is a pretty easy argument to shut down.  

In the current debate that’s about as far as we get. The people who can afford to do unpaid internships are rich, the people who offer unpaid internships are bad, and the whole situation is awful for social mobility.

But this misses two crucial factors which arguably contribute just as much the problem as those who advertise unpaid internships in the style of Raab.  

First, there are those who claim not to offer unpaid internships whilst not having any formal paid alternative. The problem can be best illustrated with an example. Say a firm has no paid internship scheme, does this mean they have no interns? The likelihood is no. What happens if a friend asks one of the firm’s workers if their recently graduated child might shadow them for a few weeks? If a formally advertised, paid internship scheme existed the worker might point them towards that. But if such a scheme doesn’t exist, the likelihood is the worker would accept to give the child an internship, which is of course, at an individual level the decent thing to do.

In this way, seemingly benign social connections cause our class structure to be replicated again and again. Without work experience and internships made accessible by formal application processes, who you know is more important than what you know. Paradoxically, the worst unpaid internship is an unadvertised one. This subtlety doesn’t get nearly enough attention, possibly because it’s so endemic. The answer to the question ‘Why are these sectors so elitist?’ is not simply ‘Unpaid internships”. In reality, it’s more insidious than that. As the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush told me about journalism, “the problem we have as an industry is that it’s hard to get into if you don’t know someone in it.”

For this reason, any firm which doesn’t offer a paid internship, open to all, should be suspect. It isn’t simply enough to innocently hold up your hands and say, “we don’t offer an unpaid internships or work experience”. A failure to offer experience in a paid manner with a formalised application process leaves everything to connections. A phrase which I’ve often heard regarding job hunting is the importance of “being in the right place at the right time” in order to get an opportunity that was never advertised. Some would see this as another way of referring to luck. The reality is though, the more people you know, the ‘luckier’ you are.


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The second group of culprits who deserve far more attention are those who feed demand for unpaid internships. What I mean by this is every firm whose supposed ‘entry-level’ graduate job is advertised as requiring months of experience in the sector already. Why do we blame those who offer unpaid internships but not those who seem to require them? Why are we shaming Dominic Raab, to use but one example, but not the City firm offering a poorly paid internship which requires 6-months of prior experience with a FTSE 100 company?

If we continue to ignore these two problems, we’ll forever be unable to properly tackle elitism and make industries fully accessible to all. We’ll continue to get our moral sugar-rush by shaming and condemning those who offer unpaid internships but real change will evade us. Firms which offer ‘entry level’ jobs requiring an unpaid internship and those who only give experience to young people with the right connections need to take their share of the blame