The Lowdown on Graduate Internships

Monday, March 26, 2018

At face value, graduate internships are a great idea; you get a foot in the door and the chance to gain solid work experience to add to your CV. So far, so good. But what if you are expected to work for free?

Unpaid internships have long been a rite of passage for some industries. Around 40% of young people who have carried out an internship have done so on an unpaid basis* - and they are often filled on a word of mouth basis so if you don’t have the right networks, you struggle to get access.

According to The Sutton Trust which campaigns to improve social mobility “for young people who cannot afford to work for free, and for those who do not have the networks with which to secure a placement informally, internships are acting as a barrier to the best careers – and to social mobility“. Their recent report; Internships – Unpaid, unadvertised, unfair found that rising rents and inflation mean an unpaid internship now costs a single person living in London a minimum of £1,019 a month. Given that many internships last for 6 months, that’s a big investment.

Legally, as a graduate intern, your rights depend on your employment status. If you’re classed as a worker, you’re normally due the National Minimum Wage. Whilst  internships are sometimes called work placements or work experience, these terms have no legal status on their own and it’s all down to your employment status, definitions of which are set out at the Gov.UK website: Employment rights and pay for interns. The position is fairly clear; if you have an arrangement to do work or services personally for a reward (which can be money or the promise of contract or future work) you’re a worker.

That said, it’s not easy to enforce your rights when you desperately need to get experience in your chosen sector so, what to do?

Fortunately, there are a number of options open to you.

The first is to take up a paid internship through a reputable scheme. Your university careers service is normally a good starting point; Exeter University runs a well established paid internship scheme open to graduates of all universities under the Graduate Business Partnerships banner. Simply enter the keyword search term GBP to find these opportunities on Gradsouthwest.

Schemes at other universities in south west England tend to open and close depending on funding so it’s always worth giving your careers service a call to find out if anything is available. Outside of the south west, a quick internet search for ‘graduate internships university’ will point you in the right direction.

Independent of universities, the Graduate Talent Pool is a government initiative designed to help new and recent graduates gain real paid work experience and Step offers recent graduates a range of work experience opportunities both short and longer term, and importantly, all paid!

If you need to develop your networks, mentoring is a good way to do so. Sadly, there is no one source of mentors available but you could check out your alumni association or take a look at the professional association for you chosen field. This article from The Guardian gives a good overview of what to think about.

Finally, we are cheered by the news that Cancer Research has banned unpaid graduate internships and hope that others will soon follow suit. Gradsouthwest has only ever advertised paid graduate internships and will continue to do so. Because you’re more than worth it!

* Research by The Sutton Trust

Charlotte Weston: Director of Gradsouthwest

Charlotte Weston

Charlotte is a graduate with many years’ experience in both large and small organisations. She now works as a consultant to a range of SMEs across the south west and is a Non-Executive Director of Gradsouthwest.