Graduates interns who take up placements are often worse off than their peers three years later, major study finds
They are an increasingly familiar part of the modern workplace – the unpaid interns, eager for the experience and the contacts that will help ease them into a paid job. They have even been immortalised in Hollywood movies and television series – Will Humphries, played by Hugh Skinner, became the hapless hero of the comedy hit W1A, which lampooned life at the BBC.
Each year tens of thousands of students believe that if they are to get a foot on the job ladder in highly competitive industries such as the arts, media and sciences, they will need practical experience on their CV. And this means that they have little option but to spend months working for next to nothing, raising fears of exploitation.
Now a major study, the first of its kind, explodes many of the myths surrounding internships. Rather than giving students a leg-up, internships should carry a health warning, it suggests. The study, Access to and Returns from Unpaid Graduate Internships, finds that most graduates would be substantially better off by not doing an internship.
“Almost everyone taking an unpaid internship can expect to do worse three years later than had they not: former interns face a salary penalty of approximately £3,500 … compared with those who went straight into paid work, and £1,500 compared with those who went into further study,” it concludes
Dr Angus Holford, of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, used the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey to study what happened to students who were on unpaid internships six months after graduating from their first degree.
Holford looked at students who left English and Welsh universities between 2005 and 2011 to compare interns with graduates who went straight into paid work, into further study, or something else – such as time out to go travelling.
Holford speculated that many of the internships being offered to graduates were in highly competitive sectors that did not need to offer high salaries to attract employees.
“There’s a lot of jobs, for example in the arts or charities or non-governmental organisations, that people will willingly take a pay cut for the privilege of working in. People want to work for them because they’re doing good deeds. So, as a result, they’ve got many more people applying to work for them. If these are the jobs that people end up working in after an internship, then it’s not such a surprise if the wages are lower.”
In contrast, those who left university and opted against getting a toehold in a sought-after career that an internship might provide were more likely to have ended up in less attractive but potentially better-paid occupations.
Those taking up an internship were more likely to come from either the more advantaged or disadvantaged groups. Among the former group were those with parents in professional or managerial jobs, those who went to independent schools or so-called “elite” universities, and those graduating with a first or upper second class degree.
Among the latter were black and ethnic minority graduates, those with disabilities, and those from areas with a higher unemployment rate.
Of those doing an internship six months after graduation, 18.5% had gone to an independent school, 74.6% had a first or upper second degree and 21.8% had attended a Russell Group university. In addition, 12.2% had a disability, 60.5% were women, 10.3% were South Asian and 4.2% were black.
The study confirms that graduates from better-off backgrounds were more likely to be accepted for “good” internships that promise a relatively high labour market return.
Those from disadvantaged groups were taking internships that offered “less desirable or potentially exploitative positions”, which they accepted “either to gain necessary experience or learn about an industry or because no other positions were available”.
The study found that there was one positive aspect of internships. When compared with those graduates doing something else six months after leaving university – such as travelling or remaining unemployed – interns were more likely to be “very satisfied” with their career later in life.