Poorer graduates struggle for jobs as unpaid internships soar

Access to Britain’s most competitive professions is now governed by the ability to source and fund unpaid internships, according to one of the country’s top thinktanks.

A new report from the IPPR thinktank estimates that the number of internships has risen by as much as 50% since 2010, as the number of advertised graduate-entry jobs has sharply declined. The temporary positions are now considered a “must have” on the CV of any young person seeking a job, with nearly half of professional employers admitting that candidates without work experience “have little or no chance of receiving a job offer”.

The report, The Inbetweeners: The New Role of Internships in the Graduate Labour Market, claims that while about 11,000 internships are advertised each year, the real number on offer is as high as 70,000. But many of the positions do not offer meaningful learning opportunities, have poor working conditions, and are inaccessible to young people without the connections or the knowhow to obtain one.

The thinktank said focus groups conducted with graduates revealed that “discrimination, low confidence in navigating opaque recruitment practices, and a lack of knowledge in how to find good placements, can prevent young people from less privileged backgrounds from securing an internship. In short, internships are acting as a barrier to social mobility, rather than being a driver of it.”

Since 2010, the number of permanent entry-level graduate jobs has fallen by 5%. The proportion of graduates in high-skilled work is also in long-term decline. While just over 61% of graduates aged 21 to 30 were employed in high-skill occupations in 2008, the figure now is just under 56%.

The sharp decline in job opportunities, triggered by the 2008 recession, led to an oversupply of graduates with the result that firms have been able to get highly skilled workers even for low-paid, insecure work, such as internships, the IPPR warned.

With the economy recovering, the thinktank said it would normally expect to see the positions being replaced with entry-level jobs, but instead they have become a permanent feature of the graduate labour market, often open only to those from more wealthy backgrounds.

“Although Theresa May agrees that ‘advancement in today’s Britain is still too often determined by wealth or circumstance, by an accident of birth, rather than talent, and by privilege not merit’, one of the key routes into top jobs – internships – is closed off to many,” said Carys Roberts, IPPR research fellow.

“It is extremely difficult to access internships in many sectors, and it’s those with the connections, know-how and the financial means who find it easiest to gain entry to this important career stage. For internships to help rather than hinder social mobility, universities, employers and government should act together to increase the overall availability of internships and minimise any barriers to take-up for those who are disadvantaged.”

Publishing, media and the arts are proving particularly difficult for graduates from poorer backgrounds, whose parents cannot afford to subsidise their work experience, the research found.

These sectors also have a high concentration of internships. Film and television accounts for 8% of the jobs market in the creative industry but a sizable 16% of the internships on offer. In London, internships are seen as another way of securing business. The IPPR cited research that suggests “many of the big banks have specific people within their HR teams to look after internships for people who are either sons of clients or top executives within the bank”.

Alan Milburn, who chairs the Social Mobility Commission, welcomed the report. “Internships are the new first rung on the professional ladder,” he said. “[But they] are too often unpaid and not advertised, making them inaccessible to young people who are locked out of these opportunities because they cannot afford to work for free. Restricted access to internships is bad for interns, business, the economy and acts as a major barrier to social mobility.

“Unpaid and inaccessible internships should end.”

‘I reckon I applied for 100 posts’

Samuel Nichols, 21, is about to finish the third year of a politics degree at King’s College London, and has just started working part-time for an MP, in a job that attracted 280 applicants.

He said: “It became quite apparent to me, having flicked through jobs, that when I graduated, experience would be vital. I was kind of under the impression that with my degree I would just be able to walk straight out of university into a politics job. But it became pretty clear that I’d either have to work for a minimum of a year unpaid when I graduated, or I’d have to do work experience at university. But we’re talking a £21,000-a-year starting salary with a minimum of one year politics experience, which is quite asymmetrical in terms of reward for effort.

“At the start of my second year I started really going for it with the internship applications. I reckon I applied for about 100 jobs over an eight-month period. As far as I understand, the majority of internships aimed at university students are unpaid or expenses-paid. Understandably, the job market is so full of graduates taking entry-level jobs and paid internships that they’ve had to create a new level below that which I don’t think businesses can afford to pay for.

“The thing I found most frustrating in applying for internships was that the majority of the time, if I applied for roughly 100 jobs, maybe 10% of them got back to me at all – if only to say that I had been rejected.”

The author: Michel THEYS

Michel Theys, a Belgian native, began his career as a civil servant, serving the public for several decades. After retirement, he shifted gears to follow his passion for journalism. With a background in public administration, Theys brought a unique perspective to his reporting. His insightful articles, covering a wide array of topics, swiftly gained recognition. Today, Michel Theys is a respected journalist known for his balanced and thoughtful reporting in the Belgian media landscape.

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