Internships: the facts and figures

Anyone who has ever watched American reality TV show The Hills could be forgiven for thinking an internship was a glamorous way to spend a summer before going on to make lots of money and become famous.

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Read some real-life stories about interning

The reality of interning is that it is an entry level opportunity — often unpaid — that has become a must-have addition to one’s CV in today’s competitive job environment. Employers want to see some kind of work experience before they’ll be prepared to take on new graduates, and for many the only way to get this is via an internship.

What is an internship?

An internship is a period of work that gives people the opportunity to gain new skills and experience in a field of work they hope to become employed in on a permanent basis. Most interns are students or recent graduates.

Although internships are similar to work experience and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, internships tend to be for longer periods than work experience. Historically, work experience placements usually lasted a week or two, whereas these days internships typically run for longer periods, sometimes up to six months.

Internships have long been a feature of the American employment landscape, but are relatively new to the UK market. There have been two main driving forces behind the explosion in the number of internships in recent years: first, many businesses are suffering due to the economic crisis and recessions, therefore they want to save money on labour. And second, many more graduates are unemployed – there are more than 1 million people aged between 16–24 out of work at present – meaning more people are likely to consider an internship as a way to get a foot in the door.

Will I get paid?

Some internships are paid, but many are not. Companies that do not pay interns often offer some payment towards travel and lunch costs — this can really help if you are commuting to London from outside the capital as train fares during peak times are pricey.

The law on whether or not interns have to be paid is murky. Legally, anyone who is defined as a 'worker' must be paid minimum wage, which is £6.70 per hour for those aged over 21.

But volunteers do not have to be paid minimum wage and determining whether or not an intern is a worker or a volunteer can be tricky. You can be a volunteer for any kind of business — it does not have to be a charitable organisation.

If you do not have an employment contract, do not receive any financial reward for working and do not have to turn up on any particular day or time, then legally you will probably not be considered a worker.

If you are required to work set hours and complete certain tasks, you are likely to be considered a worker.

Students doing work experience as part of a sandwich course and those shadowing someone else at a workplace are not entitled to be paid.

Is it worth it?

Many employers advertise internships that have clearly defined hours and responsibilities but are unpaid, even though the vacancy seems to be for a worker.

These kind of unpaid internships have caused much debate among both jobseekers and employers. Some graduate employers have said that today’s graduates finish university lacking basic work skills and that they can’t afford to pay them while they learn on the job.

However, graduates have argued that they are being exploited by unpaid internships, and that the need to do extensive unpaid work is leading to many professions — particularly those in the arts and creative industries — being effectively closed to those who do not come from a privileged background.

Whatever your view on the ethics of unpaid internships, there is some evidence to suggest that those with work experience are more likely to find work after graduation.

In January, a report published by High Fliers Research predicted that one-third of this year’s graduate vacancies would be filled by applicants that had worked for the hiring organisation during their studies. It said that those with no work experience had “little hope of landing a well-paid job with a leading employer, irrespective of the academic results they achieve or the university they’ve attended”.

This is backed up by data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which found that 21.7% of those that graduated in 2009 who were employed six months later were working for an employer they had undertaken some kind of work experience for in the past.

Where can I find an internship?