Friday, 16 August 2013

A positive approach to internships

INTERNSHIPS. How can they really make a positive impact? How do we tell the difference between genuine work opportunities and disguised exploitation?

These are some of the questions arising in tonight's conversation at St John's, involving Dr Martha Caddell (Third Sector Internships Scotland and Open University in Scotland), Joy Lewis (Adopt an Intern), and Juliette Burton (Mace and Burton). It was chaired by Harriet Eadie, CEO of the Volunteer Centre.

Martha described her work as "opening up alternative career pathways to the usual milk round!" Voluntary sector groups, many of them small-scale have offered some 221 internships recently, but there have been 5,600 applications - so there is a clear demand, outstripping potential employers.

Third Sector Internships Scotland pay the Living Wage, offer real support and guidance, and seek a variety of creative long- and short-term work placements - with environmental charities, NGO archives, management of voluntary initiatives, running food banks, and much more.

These placements have been rated as 'high value' by 90% interns, and also endorsed by the organisations, not least because of a strong relationship between input and output.

Internships, Martha stressed, are very different from volunteering, and this distinction needs to be made more explicit and better known.

Joy Lewis of Adopt an Intern started at a think-tank, feeling guilty about the number of unpaid graduates passing through. An internship programme was started. "The result was amazing... and many people said, 'we'd love to pay, if we had money'," she reported.

Thankfully, others were able to remunerate, and when government money came in Adopt an Intern was set up as an independent but subsidiary enterprise. Nearly 400 people have been placed so far, in three years.

In the future there will be a greater emphasis on micro-business, as this is where the action is. There is also an HR section working with public sector bodies.

Juliette Burton is doing a play on the Fringe called 'When I grow up'. As a journalist she was involved in a good deal of unpaid internship. For the show she wanted to develop a different approach, and connected with Queen Margaret University regarding placements from arts management students.

Her business is not yet in profit, but Juliette is determined to act creatively to ensure that paid posts are generated.

The discussion moved on to the law, and the acknowledgement that there is no legal definition of 'intern'. But case law, through employment tribunals, is gradually clarifying things. When people are deemed 'workers' they should be paid. Exceptions are work placements, and apprenticeships get a lower national minimum wage.

Also 'voluntary workers' are a grey area, and do not have to be paid. Likewise for those on a government work programme and what critics call 'workfare'.

Some charities are still offering 'full time for free for six months' to use the letter of the law, but without what most would regard as real respect for its spirit. This is a significant loophole. It is an ethical deficit and it devalues all involved. The 'best person for the job' becomes a redundant concept.

A lot of internships seem to be located in London or big cities, people said, which limits the pool of talent. In some extreme cases people are even being required to pay for their place.

Joy suggested that knowing how to use experience was important, not just getting paid. But others pointed out that this did not pay the shopping bills!

Obligation, a clear project and structure are among the potential differences between internships and volunteering per se.

"In the here and now it's this or nothing... that's the problem," one recent graduate said, describing his own experience.

Institutional unpaid internships actually devalue voluntarism, said Martha. The campaigning of unions like the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and BECTU is important. Government is being pressured. Good practice is being developed. This is important.

What is needed, the participants in the conversation agreed, is 'wrap around support', good legislation, codes of practice, and good conduct.

'Creative industries' that can only survive by not paying people are not sustainable, and unpaid people cannot purchase their output, so everyone ends up losing in the long-run.

A decent definition of internship would have to be project based with valid outcomes for organisation / company and the worker - and about moving people into work and proper remuneration. For a charity, the outcome needs to be a charitable objective and public benefit.

In conclusion, the session did not absolutely rule out all unpaid internships, but wanted payment to be the norm and goal, and a proper, legally regulated, sustainable approach to be evolved.

This is a developing live blog. 

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