September 13, 2010
Brussels runs on a growing army of barely-paid interns doing work once described as a ‘job’ but now rebranded as a training experience
A worrying trend in the European job market is the growing number of junior positions which have been recast as internships.
These are entry-level jobs that have been downgraded. Graduates are sold the idea of internships on the basis that they trade their salaries for a training experience.
We’re talking here about people working for less than the minimum wage. If they should be paid (let’s say) €18k per annum but are actually given expenses worth €10k, they are effectively forking out €8,000.00 for a training experience.
Is it worth it? Are they actually being trained?
Sometimes, the answer is yes. But often a stagiaire is taken on, shown the ropes for a couple of weeks and given real work to do – just as an entry-level staff member would be.
The National Union of Journalists has taken issue with this in its submission to the European Commission on creative industries.
Their gripe is that journalism jobs are being replaced by internships. This doesn’t help established journalists and it doesn’t help those starting in the profession either. The same goes for law firms and lobby groups throughout the Brussels bubble.
MEP Emilie Turunen is taking this issue on in an own-initiative report for the European Parliament.
She says, not unreasonably, that interns should have a reasonable expectation of getting a job when their training period is up and that it should be a learning experience rather than cheap labour.
The reality is that many young graduates face the prospect of becoming serial interns, forced to take one internship after another rather than sit at home waiting for the job market to pick up. These are people who want to be economically active.
Underpaying interns hurts the economy
It could be argued that interns should be counted as part of the unemployment rate given that they are not paid the minimum wage and thus rely on family or savings to support them.
All of this means that young people are unable to repay debts racked up during their university years until they are in their late 20s or early 30s. This means postponing other life decisions like starting a family – exacerbating the demographic timebomb – and curbing their spending power, which is a drag on the wider economy.
Everybody’s doing it, but that’s no excuse
It’s not just Brussels, of course. London, Paris, Berlin – they’re all getting in on the act. Washington has been at it for years.
Indeed, this Diary of a Washtingon Intern from the Irish Times is worth a read. It paints a picture of a fiercely competitive jobs market where highly-qualified graduates are battling it out to work for nothing, in the hope that it might eventually land them a (very junior) proper job. Brussels is following this model.
Okay, so even if you don’t care much about underpaid workers and you’re not worried by the prospect of 28-year-olds who can’t serve as good European consumers, I have one last pitch. It’s an oldie but a goodie: social equality.
Who can afford to do three or four six-month internships in a row?
The answer is, generally, middle-class graduates whose parents have the means and inclination to fund them into their post-university years.
Of course there are those who don’t fit this description and have battled through a couple of internships and landed themselves a job. But by and large, you need some kind of financial security behind you to allow yourself be exploited by the Great Internship Scam.
This blows away the argument that internships are a great way to get a foot on the employment ladder. If we’re talking about ‘access’ we should be talking about equal access. And the internship culture we’ve allowed to develop only serves to shore up class divides and stifle social mobility.
So, what to do?
Companies will always work find the cheapest route to profit they can. That’s their raison d’être. So it’s up to governments to find a way to regulate internships; a way to turn them back into a training experience, paid a (very) basic living wage, with some prospect of a job at the end if the employee proves their worth.
Junior staffers still have to work hard and do crap work, but they should be able to pay their own rent and bills.
(Lest you think this is a rant by a disgruntled intern or former intern, I should mention that I was spared the stagiaire experience. I graduated in Dublin – where internships are less common and tend to be short training placements often leading to paid work. I got a job when I left university. It was a poorly-paid job at the bottom of the ladder but a job nonetheless.)Author : Gary Finnegan