Careers – The Trouble with Internships

When did this once well-structured work experience turn into such blatant unpaid labour, asks Frances Mensah Williams.

There’s been a lot of talk in the news about internships lately; provoking much debate and occasional condemnation of those who have the temerity to use the services of the legions of unemployed youth without paying a red cent for their free labour.

Ms. Frances Mensah Williams

It may be a sign of age, but I remember when internships were universally regarded as a good thing, at least for those who didn’t have to be responsible for them.  I can still recall the varying looks of irritation, frustration, resignation and downright horror on the faces of department heads when, in my days as an HR Director, I would inform them that interns were on the way.

Internships can offer many advantages to employers and employees alike.  But, judging from some of the reports that have been coming out lately, it seems that this once well-regarded and well-structured work experience is in danger of losing credibility.

‘An Unpaid Labor Racket’

Writing in The New York Times recently, Ross Perlin, the author of “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy” pointed out that with youth unemployment at a record high, “the labor of unpaid interns has quietly replaced or displaced untold thousands of workers.”

But without an internship to your name, he says, getting a job in certain sectors is increasingly unlikely.  “Lucrative and influential professions — politics, media and entertainment, to name a few — now virtually require a period of unpaid work, effectively barring young people from less privileged backgrounds.”

What was once a well-intended programme of paid training experience, Perlin says, has degenerated into “an unpaid labour racket.”  Even more seriously, he notes, through these unpaid stints, “a fundamental ethic is under threat: the idea that a hard day’s work demands a fair wage.”

But, done right, internships can be a great investment of time and effort, giving a new entrant to the workplace the chance to see the real life application of their potential career choice and to be able to answer the question ‘is this career what I thought it would be?’

Acquiring Skills or Wasting Time?

A well planned internship will lead to the acquisition of new skills and insights and allow the intern to gain greater confidence as they learn how things work. A good internship adds value to a CV and, particularly for highly competitive career routes, is evidence to potential employers of a candidate’s commitment and interest in their sector.

For employers, internships offer the chance to see potential recruits in action and to give leadership opportunities to those responsible for supervising them.  Even companies and organisations with limited recruitment intentions can, through internships, play the role of good corporate citizens through helping to build skills and capacity for young people, thereby increasing their ability to progress into good jobs elsewhere.

Done wrong, though, internships can be everyone’s worst nightmare. The poorly served intern ends up developing expertise in making tea, photocopying documents, entering data and a host of other menial activities.  Developing a knowledge of the nearest drycleaners for their boss’s suits adds little value to an intern’s ability to progress (unless, of course, dry cleaning is their career of choice).  

Brand Management

Used poorly, an internship that represents only a free subsidy to a company’s bottom line is not only a waste of everyone’s time, but also very bad publicity.  In these days of viral messaging when the young, especially, can get their opinions around the world within a matter of hours, any company that cares about its reputation and its brand should think carefully about how it treats its staff – whether paid or unpaid.

Former UK Minister Alan Milburn has been vocal on the subject of interns, pointing out that connections, not ability, are still key to getting these placements. “The evidence that I have seen shows that, despite some examples to the contrary, connection rather than ability continues to be the key to getting an internship. This is both unfair and bad for business.”  

His recommendations are that internship programmes provide meaningful experience and not merely cheap labour, are accessible to all through transparent recruitment, and that interns are paid enough to be viable for those without private means of support.

Making It Work

Employers who favour the use of interns should ensure that they follow the applicable labour laws, even for interns.  A structured internship that is set up for a specific and limited period, offers a rotation across different parts of the business or organisation, provides evaluation of the process by both sides and includes close supervision of the intern can turn a useful idea into a valuable process for everyone.

In his book, Perlin notes that fulfilling internships do still exist and good companies are offering paid positions that are advertised and filled in a fair and transparent manner and which offer invaluable experience to help the intern find full-time paid employment. But he says “the rash of illegal, exploitative situations has destroyed any notion that internships are inherently “win-win”.”

The bleakness of the current job market notwithstanding, those seeking internships would be advised to look hard at what is on offer and to be clear about how it will add to their skills and experience and aid in their long-term job search.  

Employers who care about their reputations and who are consciously seeking the future talent needed to grow their organisations will need to better demonstrate the value of their internship programmes so that these experiences can move away from being seen as the equivalent of sending our kids up chimneys or down coalmines, and truly become a win-win for all involved.

By Frances Mensah Williams

The author is the CEO of Interims for Development Ltd. and Editor of ReConnect Africa ( She is the author of ‘Everyday Heroes – Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals’, available online from and on order through booksellers.