The line between ‘internship programs’ and ‘exploitation’ is a thin one. So what should a healthy, constructive internship look like?
The government’s pre-election budget announced over $840 million for a new program to get people under the age of 25 into jobs through “pre-employment skills training” and internship programs.
Interns working up to 25 hours per week would receive an extra $200 per fortnight on top of existing welfare payments. Businesses taking on those interns would receive a $1000 bonus and eligibility for a youth bonus wage subsidy, up to $10,000. As many as 30,000 interns a year could be involved.
Industry bodies welcomed the move, but one union labelled it as a “$4-per-hour jobs for young people” scheme. A social media storm followed.
Exploitation through the underpayment of wages, such as the 7-Eleven scandal, along with poor treatment of employees has become media worthy. And internship programs have not escaped notice with the former operator of a collapsed Melbourne marketing company being fined $17,500 this year for exploiting interns.
There is nothing intrinsically unethical about internships, assuming certain conditions are met, with the key underlying principle that the intern providing work gains some benefit.
So what are the real benefits?
Organisations benefit from the opportunity to assess and access potential new talent. However, internship programs can also cost employers in terms of effort and resources. Not all organisations or sectors can afford this – which is where a government support scheme may help to increase internship opportunities.
Interns gain benefit through the opportunity to ‘audition’ for a job through experience, relationship management skills, better contacts and sometimes university credits. However, it would be misleading to suggest that industry experience automatically leads to increased employability. Evidence from the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2015 Guide to Compensation for Interns & Co-ops suggests paid interns have no better chance at landing job offers than those who did no internship. In fact, it reveals that unpaid interns averaged a lower salary in their first paid job than students who had not performed an internship.
Exploitation occurs if interns are given demeaning or menial work that does not provide them with the experience they are promised, and if they are not afforded respect or dignity that others are presented with in the workplace.
Exploitation can also occur if paid internships are only available to those who already have access to opportunity. This ‘elite’ may have contacts who give them wider access to paid internships.
Fair and transparent internship placement is necessary to achieve equable distribution of social and economic advantage. We must counteract any risk of perpetuating nepotism.
If the disadvantaged are forced to take internships of a lower pay scale, then social exploitation is at play.
Social exploitation can also occur for those seeking internships as a career transition or who may have social responsibilities. If unpaid work or low paid work is disguised as ‘internships’ by organisations due to cost constraint, or if individuals are pressured to seek this kind of arrangement through desperation, we risk either exploiting others or being exploited ourselves.
A strong work ethic has always been worthy of praise, and it does not necessarily correlate that work and high pay is the right formula for success. Meaning, purpose, dignity and respect will continue to motivate many to do good work regardless of money.
If we ensure those key principles are in place, then there will be great value in the continued practice of internships.
A system that provides fair opportunity for all without the risk of exploitation should not be criticised, but applauded.
The human resources profession has a strong role to play to ensure that integrity is upheld, and that the line that divides internship programs from exploitation is not crossed.
Professor Petrina Coventry (FCPHR) will be speaking at AHRI’s National Convention from 3 to 5 August in Brisbane. To check event details and register, click here.