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Student News

Unpaid internships are damaging salary prospects

A study has revealed that unpaid internships are likely to negatively affect your salary later in life.

Unpaid InternshipThose who take on unpaid work will be worse-off than their counterparts who went straight into paid jobs.

This survey, conducted by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, is the first of its kind, and measures the career paths of tens of thousands of students over six years.

Three and a half years after graduating, former unpaid interns earn around £3,500 less than those who went straight into paid jobs, and £1,500 less than those who chose to do further study.

Interestingly, interns who had been privately schooled or who had parents working in professional occupations were also likely to be worse off. This pay gap came to an average of £2000 compared with their counterparts who were in paid work.

Interns from disadvantaged backgrounds earned over £4,000 less than those who went straight into paid jobs. The study has confirmed that graduates who came from better-off backgrounds were more likely to land the top graduate jobs, leaving those from poorer backgrounds to opt for unpaid work in an effort to pursue their career aims.

Why is there a salary difference?

Dr Angus Holford carried out this study, and argued that any graduates taking on unpaid internships in the hope of them leading to a successful career would be disappointed.

I expect some people will find an internship that enables them to do the job they really want to do and that will have the big labour-market return but, on average, an internship you take won’t lead directly to a job in the profession you really wanted or the profession you did the internship in.

The University of Essex also found that those who worked for free were less likely to go on to work in professional or managerial roles. The study suggests this also has an impact on career satisfaction. Those who had undertaken unpaid internships in the past were less likely to be happy with their job.

The study reveals that 38% of graduates who did an unpaid internship, chose to do it so they could find out more about the industry and what the work involved.

Holford suggested one reason for the difference in earnings could be that graduates who do unpaid work are delaying the start of their paid careers, which will often be in something completely different to what they did placements in.

He explained:

if you are not able to find a job straight away, you’ve missed the graduate intake, that boat has sailed and you are left behind. If you take a while to get promoted you might be a little bit behind. Or you might get side-tracked into a different career trajectory.

Why do people do unpaid internships?

In a strange twist I've decided to comment on this myself. Among other things I'm now a (paid) news writer at Save the Student but in the past I have done unpaid work experience. My thoughts are:

It’s really tough. I don’t for one moment think that anyone interning should be under-valued or taken advantage of. If you're doing a job and the business is making money then why should you not be paid?

If you can possibly stay away from unpaid work experience and still build your CV then, of course, you should.

However, the job market is so competitive for graduates and I chose to do a bit of unpaid work simply for the professional value it has added. The contacts, industry experience, and extra skills I have gained were worth it for me. If you choose to do similar though, don’t do much longer than a week and always choose places that will at least pay for your expenses. Don’t get work experience for the sake of it, think about what you will get out of it before agreeing to do it.

If the government ever makes a decision about the laws around internships, future graduates may not ever have to face this difficult choice. For now, we must continue fighting for unpaid internships to be made illegal. If you’re currently searching for work experience, we urge you to know your facts before applying or accepting any offers.

Have you got any experience of an unpaid internship? Or thoughts on whether they should be allowed? Leave a comment below...


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