Refusing to pay is a non-starter, says Dr Martha Caddell
So what will the new year, with all the hope and aspiration it brings, mean for students and graduates seeking to take steps into new careers?
The year 2013 was when public and political debate erupted around the use of unpaid internships and the concerns about fairness and equity of access to careers. High-profile examples, including interns working unpaid for television production teams, politicians and football clubs, cast a critical light on the culture of internships.
As the year draws to a close, practice and opinion remain divided. HMRC announced an investigation into 200 firms advertising internships, to ensure they were paying the minimum wage and to promote understanding of the rights people have over pay. Yet unpaid positions continue to be advertised and, crucially, continue to attract applicants as graduates and young people seek routes into a highly competitive labour market. The questions that arise are not just legal concerns about wage legislation, but ones of fairness and equality.
Opportunities need to be opened up to students
So 2014 offers an opportunity for change. There is increasing recognition of the need for meaningful work placements and internships that support transition from university into a chosen career. Yet these opportunities need to be opened up to students based on skills and potential – and that requires these posts to be meaningful, fairly advertised and paid. How can we promote this working culture and openness of opportunity in Scotland? And how can we develop the partnerships needed to secure benefits for labour market entrants and broader society?
The benefits of offering paid internships – for employers, for students, and universities that support them – are clear. Over the past three years, the Scottish Funding Council has supported initiatives to explore how universities and employers can support students into employment.
Third Sector Internships Scotland, a nationwide programme led by the Open University in Scotland, Queen Margaret University and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, has emerged as a flagship example of what can be achieved through strong collaboration between universities and employers. It offers students at all Scottish universities the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations through paid, supported internships. Demand has been high. More than 6,400 applications have been received from students for 271 posts.
The programme offers a “triple win” – each internship has its own story of success, achievement and impact for the intern, organisations and communities across Scotland. Recycling projects have been initiated, community transport policies reviewed, research and funding bids developed. The projects delivered by interns have been as varied and diverse as Scotland’s vibrant third sector.
Fresh skills to deliver meaningful work
For interns and for host organisations paying students for their work has made a difference. Students have been able to apply based on potential and ability, not on the basis of their capacity to work for free. Many would not have been able to take on these roles without pay. Employers have also noted a distinct difference between what they can expect from a paid (and formally contracted) intern as opposed to a volunteer. Bringing in fresh skills to deliver a meaningful, time-bound piece of work is enormously valuable. Across the board, interns and employers have reported considerable benefits from the programme, notably increased confidence and capacity to act and take plans forward. But what of the bottom line? The evidence is clear – the benefits to students and hosts exceed the outlay.
Making a difference in this way – to students, host employers and communities across Scotland – has only been possible by building strong and dynamic partnerships between the nation’s third sector and its universities. Internships are not just about doing a job, but about developing skills and gaining new expertise – for employer and intern.
Third Sector Internships Scotland and university staff have supported students throughout application and internship processes, providing hosts with the recruitment support needed to boost their confidence and capacity to take on a student. Internships offer a clear focus for sharing skills, demonstrating the mutual benefits of working together.
So let’s make 2014 the year when we show students what is possible – the opportunities that can be created and the diverse career pathways open to them. Creating fair and equitable access to opportunities will enhance the skills and expertise that employers can benefit from – and will be of benefit to us all.
• Dr Martha Caddell is learning and teaching co-ordinator at The Open University in Scotland and co-director of Third Sector Internships Scotland