Internships: Head start or labour trap?

22 August 2012
Young man
Internships can provide valuable work experience to young people. But during economic downturns there is also a risk of abuse.

An article published by ILO News looks at the benefits and drawbacks of internships.

“The main objective of internships is to provide work experience for young people who otherwise often find themselves trapped in a ‘Catch 22’ situation in which they are unable to acquire work experience because they cannot find a first job, and cannot find a job because they do not have work experience,” says Gianni Rosas, the Coordinator of the ILO’s Youth Employment Programme.

Internships are often considered a great way for young people to gather valuable work experience and get a foothold in the labour market. Their importance has risen as graduates find it increasingly difficult to land a job. But widely reported abuses have led to vocal criticism of internships as a source of cheap, and often free, labour.

Paid vs unpaid internships
Several governments have put in place legal safeguards against the exploitation of interns.

“Internships should always have a training component, since they are about on-the-job training. If they use young people for duties that are normally carried out by core workers this can be pursued in labour courts,” Gianni Rosas to ILO News.

The inappropriate use of internships has expanded in recent years, particularly in countries hit hard by the global crisis, and young people are increasingly voicing their concerns. There is, for example, a global – and vocal -- community of tweeters reporting daily on internship practices.

“Internships should always have a training component, since they are about on-the-job training. If they use young people for duties that are normally carried out by core workers this can be considered as disguised employment, which can be pursued in labour courts,” says Rosas.

One major issue is whether young interns should be paid or not.

Under US law, internships in the private sector are generally viewed as employment, though unpaid internships are legal under certain circumstances. Among the criteria for an internship to be unpaid is that it should have a strong training component, that the intern does not displace regular employees and that the employer derives no immediate advantage.

In France, interns do not have a legal right to a wage but must be given a bonus if their internship is more than two months in the same academic year. The so-called “Cherpion Law” of 2011 also states that internships cannot consist of tasks that could be done by a worker in a permanent position, and they must also offer training.

But critics say the laws are difficult to enforce.

A need for “best practices”
A recent survey by the US National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) showed that 60 per cent of university graduates who had done a paid internship received at least one job offer, compared with 36 per cent of those with no internship experience.

But the survey also suggested that only interns who were paid had a decided advantage on the jobs market over graduates with no internship experience. Only 37 per cent of those who did an unpaid internship had job offers.

“There are a number of good practices, for example, the International Labour Organization (ILO) does provide its interns with a stipend. This is in full recognition of the fact that quite often young people need to travel and establish themselves in a city or a country where they cannot get support from family or other networks,“ says Rosas to ILO News.

Read the full article at ILO News.

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