The unpaid internship boom

By Alex Varley-Winter

The internship boom, many of the positions unpaid, illegal and unmonitored, is an unfettered phenomenon. ‘Work experience’ is now so coveted that not only are people doing it for free, they are also paying to work. The fact that we can now auction internships off and trade on these experiences as commodities brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘job market’.

Having interned myself at various media organisations over the past year, I see several problems emerging for graduates that plunge into this system with their eyes closed. Some of these are as follows:

Internships can flout the law

LegalWeek offers a good guide to determining the legality (and frequent illegality) of unpaid internships. It’s worth considering these points, obviously:

“Government guidance has suggested that genuine internships should last no more than two to four weeks and for no more than 40 hours a week.”


“The intern should not actually work but should shadow an employee to learn what to do.”

An intern is also a ‘worker’ if they complete set hours, carry out set duties and actively contribute to the organisation. If you’re a ‘worker’, you are entitled to minimum wage and can’t waive that right.

Interns Anonymous offer advice on how to claim and the National Union of Journalists have launched a Cashback For Interns scheme for over-21s. The scheme’s founder Fiona O’Cleirigh will be at the Frontline Club to answer your questions.

Prolonged adolescence

Unpaid work perpetuates our status as dependents. Some people work nights to fund their voluntary day-job – most need parental support. All this leads to the phenomenon of ‘prolonged adolescence’ well-documented in Ross Perlin’s book Intern Nation, where even stellar graduates can continue in a state of dependency well into their twenties.

Growing inequalities

By being able to do an internship, we’re privileged, if not in wealth then in kind – living on our friends’ property or on our parents’ purse-strings (what Perlin calls ‘aspirationally if not actually middle-class’). This widens the gap between us and the unprivileged – the people without the wealth or connections or enough weekend work to pursue unpaid placements.

Shrinking the job market

Look on graduate job websites and you’ll find that paid graduate entry-level jobs in the media / fashion / politics / museums, particularly in big cities, are increasingly rare. 

So who’s doing those jobs? Unpaid Interns are voluntarily phasing out what were once paid entry-level positions in reputable organisations. A freelance photographer told me she was being squeezed out of the market in museum photography by unpaid wannabes. It is a genuine problem.

Devaluing paid staff

Former Telegraph intern Ed Cumming, now employed at the broadsheet, reviews Perlin’s book as ‘distractingly angry’ and points out that his own internship was to his benefit.

At the same time, he observes the ‘downward pressure on pay’ that the phenomenon exerts. In many ways it’s the people surrounding the interns: those competing with them at the desks, who have the most to worry about. When real work is done for free, it makes a nonsense of an industry.

Having said all this…

Internships, run properly, might still be a good idea. Young people have a well-founded demand for industry-placed training. It should be possible, however, for employers to offer them that experience without breaking the law, exploiting youthful energy and, to a greater or lesser extent, screwing up the industry.

Frontline’s event tomorrow is the first I’ve come across where both sides of the intern boom are represented: those campaigning for interns’ rights, and those piggy-backing on the trend. As a serial intern myself, I’m looking forward to it.

More details about Frontline’s event Internships: opportunity or cheap labour? can be found here.