Britain, Education, Grammar Schools, House of Commons, House of Lords, Internships, Private Schools

Internships & Work Experience: Slave Labour That Requires a Minimum Wage

Minimum Wage

A minimum wage for interns?

The need to gain work experience and complete internships makes it difficult for many young people to enter their chosen profession. The absence of payment in many positions – especially in politics – forces many young people away from the career they aspire to. Ben Wood cautiously suggests introducing a minimum wage for work experience seekers and interns.  

Work experience and internships are key ingredients in any society, perhaps not more so than at the current state of the nation. With record rates of unemployment, more and more people are left feeling that their CV lacks work experience.

Certain careers often come with an almost pre-set requirement of an internship. One such path would be to enter the world of politics. But gaining work experience in politics is difficult. Many, upon the completion of their degree, must slumber through at least 3 months of an unpaid internship before being dismissed back into the world of searching for a paid position.

In simple terms, there is no other option. The vicious circle means that there is no opportunity to jump the step – there will always be those with past-experience who will snap up the available vacancies. In this sense, experience is a necessity.

Other examples include working with food. A brief look at the Job Centres website shows that 9/10 of “Kitchen Assistants” require past experience. The list seems not to dwindle; medicine, engineering – all sectors require experience before entering their fields of excellence.

In the majority of cases, unless the position leads to a certain career, it usually lacks a definitive reward. A glance at “w4mp.org” reveals adverts for internships with the three main political parties; each advert gains flocks of attention and applicants, despite the vast array being unpaid and for a duration of at least 3 months.

It is perfectly reasonable for employers looking for workers to ask for applicants to be proven – and most respect that. But whilst gaining experience, some sort of recompense is needed.

Is it time, then, that we introduce the current minimum wage to cover work experience and internships? I believe not; employers would tend not employ anyone unproven who is looking to gain experience.

My favoured option would be to create a separate minimum wage for those completing work experience and internships. The point was briefly suggested in the commons by a back-bencher some months back – not much support was received and the suggestion soon blew over.

The idea seemed basic and clearly wasn’t a long, thought over plan.  Any such proposal would have to overcome several obstacles:

The ‘Education (Work Experience) Act 1996’ currently requires that “Children in their last year of compulsory schooling take part in work experience” – this presumably would be the biggest hurdle to jump. Employers would surely not pay secondary school students to do ‘odd jobs’ for a week, and nor would the schools. The minimum wage would have to exclude minors under the age of 16.

Even those above 16, who are looking to gain work experience to enter specific careers, would have a greater struggle to find temporary employers. Employers currently see work experience as a way of gaining free labour to do minor tasks that don’t require urgent attention; whilst interns complete work that is much needed. Should this minimum wage only be available to interns? It could be tricky disentangling the concepts of experience and internship.

Finding a correct formulation for the minimum wage could also be problematic. The current minimum wage for 18-20 year old is slightly short of £5 at £4.92, whilst those above 20 receive £5.93 and an apprentice receives a minimum of £2.50. The government has previously suggested a London cost of living at £9,600 per year; in 9-to-5 hours that equates to £4.62 an hour. Taking into consideration the reluctance of employers to fork out large wages – balanced with the experience seeker’s need to live on a budget – I put forward the suggestion of £3.50.

On the matter of political internships, we have all heard the infrequent stories of ministers hiring close friends as interns. If interns are paid – as sometimes they are – then the matter becomes much more serious as we will see MPs paying friends and family to become interns. To operate a successful minimum wage for political interns, we need to protect against the possibility of nepotism.

Two problems: The expenses scandal brings the salaries of interns into sharp focus that MPs might want to pass over any service that looks like an extravagance. Also, at a time when people are struggling, tax-payers might resent their money paying for internships in Westminster.

If each of the 650 members of parliament employed one intern at the previously proposed wage of £3.50 for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week – the resultant cost to the taxpayer would be £4,732,000 per year. Considering the total salary of the MP’s stands at £42,729,700 (not including expenses), I don’t believe the cost is too off-the-rail.

This proposal throws up further difficulties: Payment for internships may result in more interest and applicants, actually resulting in a loss of opportunity. Also, people otherwise uninterested in internships might apply for them to get a short-term supply of money.

Furthermore, employers may use the word ‘internship’ as an excuse for a smaller wage. Businesses could choose to pay workers smaller amounts by designating them as interns, despite the position involving the same tasks as a properly salaried job.

Let’s draft a proposal then – the introduction of a £3.50 minimum wage for interns above the age of 16. I admit it is unlikely this once bright idea will be followed through. But I’m sure, if it were implemented, the prospects of young people getting jobs in their chosen professions would greatly improve.

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