Interns and business during the recession

The UK finds itself in the grips of a recession which shows no sign of passing any time soon and so businesses must ask themselves: is it the right time to use interns?

Currently the majority of businesses are experiencing a downturn in profits and an increase in their overheads as raw materials cost more, add this to the decrease in the value of the pound and we have businesses panicking as shareholders and owners see their bottom lines go down.

Within a number of businesses one of the biggest overheads is personnel and redundancies are now a common sight in the media on a daily basis. With the reductions in permanent staff and the increasing use of freelancers, can interns become another of those alternatives?

Let’s consider an example. I work in the media industry and within my specific company they announced a number of redundancies just before Christmas alongside a freeze on recruitment of non-essential staff. Since then we have been relying on freelancers to fill in for the staff made redundant, with the surviving permanent staff seeing their workloads increase dramatically.

A production desk requires as a minimum, a production editor, a sub-editor, a designer and a picture researcher to produce a national standard product. Now consider that only the production editor remains and the others have been made redundant, replaced with freelancers on a part-time basis.

Now a basic freelancer brought in to cover production will cost around £150 per day, plus holiday pay, plus every minute of overtime they work. Whilst a production staff member on £32,000 annual on a permanent contract will earn just over £88 per day, and not be paid overtime in most cases. That’s a difference of £72 per day as a basic salary.

This is just the basic salary, added to this you have to take into account administration costs, time for training and familiarising a freelancer with the standard of your product.

Although these are exactly the same as with any new member of staff, the advantage of using a freelancer is that once you have trained them on the system and they should be familiar with similar design tools already, you can trade them amongst titles within a business.

Now what would happen if instead of using a freelancer we used an intern?

There are costs associated with this but these could be minimised if you recruit correctly. Let’s start with recruitment, instead of going to the freelance database that the business would hold and simply calling individuals up to check there availability, the business placed an advert.

Recruitment firms such as Reed and Hays, charge for job adverts, but wait we are not looking for a permanent or contact employee, we are looking for an intern, which requires a different style of recruitment.

The first port of call should be the local colleges and universities to see which run courses in design, and if there are any which require students to partake in work placements?

Secondly the business would need to place an advert in markets where individuals look for work experience within that field. There are a number which are great at attracting promising candidates such as

Once you start to get candidates in you need to see what they can do, so instead of a simple interview you have them shadow someone for a day. If they don’t work out at least your department has someone to make copies and bring tea. Whilst if they show an aptitude for the role and an eagerness to learn then there is no reason that they cannot be brought in to learn the business in a practical environment.

I can see the faces of production staff as I write this, they would be tearing their hair out shouting “I don’t have time for this!” After all they would have to effectively teach them everything in a condensed format just to get them ready to work. Or would they?

When someone finishes a course at say University they most likely haven’t got any real experience in business so what’s the difference with taking someone who has finished a course and is applying for a job and taking someone half way through a course and having them on a work placement?

With the current recession fewer staff are being asked to cover more work and even if there was a new member of staff brought in they would have to be taught the systems used within that individual business. It’s a question that every business needs to ask itself as more and more young people leave education with little hope of getting into employment.

This isn’t just the case with a specialised job like production. Every job requires an element of training even if it’s just how not to fall into the deep fat fryer. Business could offer internships in offices, zoos, councils, schools, shops, charities, abroad or at home, anywhere and in every industry.

We need to get people active and to keep their skills up to date, the only way to do that is through education and employment. Offering internships to people leaving education will help them get into the job market properly, whilst internships could be seen as a way of looking in a new direction for those made redundant recently.

Of course there is another side to this, should people be looking to do internships within business at the moment?

With the recession everyone is finding their wallets a little emptier. With that in mind can someone afford to commit to an internship when they have no income coming in? At the moment job numbers are reducing all over the country, rent and mortgages still need to be paid, but in the case of mortgages a little less, food still needs to be bought and bills need to be paid.

People need to have something that makes them stand out from their competition so my question is how can they not afford to do an internship? Of course whilst you do an internship you can’t look for jobs or attend interviews or claim benefit.

The Prime Minister last week announced a community work scheme for 16 to 19 year olds which aims to give school leavers the skills and experience they need to enter the jobs market, the scheme will help around 20,000 young people to gain qualifications whilst the Conservative opposition suggested introducing a new ‘citizen service’ program for all 16 year olds.

Of course the upside of this for the government is that they can take these people off the unemployment figures for that quarter, but why not go further?

Why not make internships, voluntary work and work placements not count against benefit so anyone who is unemployed can do one and people can still claim financial aid if they need it?

The idea would be that businesses piggyback on the scheme with it extended to include all those who are unemployed, after all most of them are doing it for free with no guarantee of a job at the end of their internship. As a safeguard you would need to set a limit on the length of any placement say twelve weeks and set a limit on the number of placements any individual could go on within a time period.

I say now is the perfect time for employers to look at internships, with a larger number of unemployed people to recruit and that figure looking like it isn’t going anywhere but up anytime soon, so now is the perfect time to get people active in business through internships.

5 Responses to “Interns and business during the recession”

  1. 1 Mark Watson 04/27/2009 at 10:19 pm

    You ask…

    When someone finishes a course at say University they most likely haven’t got any real experience in business so what’s the difference with taking someone who has finished a course and is applying for a job and taking someone half way through a course and having them on a work placement?

    Simple answer…the latter is entirely within the law, the former isn’t and the maximum penalty for using an illegal unpaid worker is now an unlimited fine.

    So go on - have a go - but if you do there’s always a risk that someone in your business or outside will think that using an unpaid worker to prop up your business is just downright exploitative.

    Then maybe you’ll be saying hello to the Revenue and, potentially, a big fine and some very nasty publicity…

  2. 2 Billy 04/30/2009 at 3:20 pm

    Now is a good time for internships from the point of view of a business - there are more people willing to do more for less money. Simple economics. Graduates know this, and in most cases are willing to accept a far from perfect arrangement. What gets to a lot of people though is the way that some business go too far - either not paying any expenses, or barely any, alternatively insisting that interns go above and beyond employees only without ‘rights’ or pay.

    I have turned down internships where I was offered around a third of my travel expenses - I refuse to be pushed around like that. I accept I need experience, I accept that I may not earn a wage for a while. But it is not fair to expect me to work my arse off in a typical 38 hour week, and only pay a tiny fraction of my transport costs. Not making much money is one thing - we put up with that. But losing money, plenty of it, in order to work - that’s something else all together. And that is what I call daylight robbery.

  3. 3 Mark Watson 05/02/2009 at 10:21 pm

    Well yes, I take your point - but “daylight robbery” is taking the money you were legally entitled to be paid and stuffing it in their own pocket!

  4. 4 rkhosla 08/10/2009 at 11:26 am

    i am recent undergraduate working as unpaid intern in the fashioh distribution industry working 45+ hours each week with no pay what so ever ( or any prospect) no travel or any other allowances. Can I get any support from the various govenment programs? i have never claimed unemployed benefits so not sure how the 6 month rule will work out for me.

    Many thanks for any ideas

    • 5 internsanonymous 08/10/2009 at 8:05 pm

      Unfortunately you do not sound eligible for support from the government, either in the form of benefits or through any scheme. However, I would recommend you have a look at our resources page and email Mark Watson who campaigns for media interns who have not been paid.

      It is also worth emailing/writing to the Low Pay Commission and the National Council for work experience (contact details should be on the resources section of the website) because the more stories like yours they hear, the better. They probably won’t be able to do much to help you financially, I’m afraid.

      It may also be worth going to your local job centre and explaining your situation. I have known interns who have managed to claim job seekers’ allowance without lying about their situation at all- always worth a try!

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