A Cross-case Analysis of the Realities of Unpaid Internships: the UK & Italy

By Anastasia Roscia.

Achieving a degree has become increasingly common in the past few decades. The job market has never been so competitive; ‘standing out from the crowd’ with a good degree and high grades is not possible anymore. In addition, macroeconomic factors such as the 2008 economic crisis have worsened the situation and impacted young people’s career perspectives. It is not surprising then that students are compelled to do an internship or placement to get a ‘foot in the door’ and achieve their dream career. It is understandable that employers might find it detrimental to their business if they spend precious time and money to train young people with little or no previous understanding of what a professional career entails. As a natural consequence, internships have become even more competitive and difficult to secure, given the staggering number of undergraduates and graduates looking for their first professional experience.

Some extremely competitive and remunerative sectors (banking or law to name but a couple) offer well-structured internships and graduate schemes. These are well funded and consist of skills development sessions, mentoring and coaching. Conversely, however, other companies and sectors which are equally highly competitive (such as music, fashion and publishing) do not pay interns at all. There may be reasons for this, and unpaid internships are not completely without merit. Many employers in certain sectors might not have the resources to take on paid interns. In these cases, there are still obvious benefits of getting a ‘foot in the door’. In addition, unpaid work experience or internships might appear to be less competitive than paid internships. The real problem hidden behind such unpaid placements, however, is that such ‘opportunities’ end up being the gate-keepers to successful careers for a wider pool of candidates. This reality is not just a U.K. prerogative. Countries such as Italy present very similar problems, although with some important differences in public attitudes and perception.

The real problem hidden behind the idea that young people need to be willing to work for free is that not everyone can afford it. Students who are lucky enough to have some sort of financial help from their families are in a better position when pursuing unpaid work experience than those whose background and funds are very limited. If you can afford to work for free, you are likely to get the experience necessary to access a career in journalism, fashion and politics. If you must work to finance your studies and/or living costs, you might not be able to afford such an opportunity. In theory, work experience could be a great engine of social mobility, giving young people the opportunity to get the experience needed to pursue their career goals regardless of background – but if a person cannot afford the living costs and needs to work to fund his/her studies, it becomes impossible to access them (without getting into debt or financial trouble) and simply reinforces inequalities and the existing class system. The Sutton Trust, a foundation which seeks “to improve social mobility in the UK through evidence-based programmes, research and policy advocacy”, publishes interesting studies about social mobility and is an important advocate for educational equality and the idea that people should have a fair chance to fulfil their potential. The Foundation published a 2018 Report called “Pay as You Go?” which seems to suggest that, even though work experience might have a positive impact for working-class students, it is also a mechanism that seems to maintain the status quo regarding social mobility. It is easy to see why internships might be detrimental for some interns who do not benefit from financial support and personal connections. After all, many internships cost money because of high accommodation costs and living expenses. For instance, cities like London provide invaluable work opportunities in many sectors but are incredibly expensive and unaffordable without financial support or the possibility of staying with family or friends.

Secondly, there are many placements which are not advertised, as well as being unpaid. Not everyone can access them because of ‘informal’ networks or connections. I am not referring to networking with people that work within the industry of choice: this is highly recommended and indeed necessary. Students should definitely try to establish meaningful connections with employers, and attempt to meet people who work within their business of interest at career fairs or events. What the Sutton Trust is referring to is the fact that unadvertised work placements depend on informal family connections. Highly talented individuals might be locked out from meaningful experiences, resulting in a shameful loss and waste of talent.

To sum up the current problem, employers who do not pay their interns believe that they are giving young people an invaluable opportunity to develop their skill set. However, this means that working-class and less well-off graduates and students have less opportunity to access them, given that they cannot rely on funds and/or connections to get the placement in the first place. This is not unique to the U.K. Italy represents an excellent further example. This particular country stands out because young people historically either work for free or are badly paid, with little or no reward coming from ‘stages’ (unpaid internships). Most importantly, many young people in Italy are left disappointed by a difficult job market where unpaid work experience is the only kind of opportunity available and informal networks favour some people over others. In other words, Italy finds itself trapped in a cycle of nepotism and lack of job opportunities for students upon graduation. Many find themselves either unemployed or working in entry-level jobs and in fields with no link to their degree. As a result, they decide to leave the country to find better opportunities abroad. Italy is therefore losing valuable talent and resources which are much needed, given the ageing population and the need to encourage much-needed economic growth in one of the worst performing countries of the Eurozone.

It is interesting how informal connections are perceived as “scandalous” in the U.K., where the idea that an individual who is truly talented deserves to succeed in life is sacrosanct. Accordingly, it is generally held to be unfair to favour people because of who their families know. While the U.K. still believes that talent is an invaluable resource that should not be wasted, it still has difficulties in reducing the gap between working-class and upper-class applicants, especially in fields such as media and law. By contrast, Italy is very different in the way people perceive privilege. Nepotism and a lack of trust towards society are almost accepted as a fact of life and young people are forced to migrate to other countries in order to access career opportunities. In both cases, the message that ambitious and hard-working individuals might never be able to go past their background is truly disappointing. However, while the UK clings to a sense of ‘fair play’, hereditary privilege is still important for many in securing the top jobs. The important difference is that Italians at least acknowledge the problem, whereas Britain seems to be in denial.

Photo credit: nattanan23 on Pixbay.com.

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