What tangible things can employers offer unpaid interns short of a salary?

I’ve just finished a year in which I did a good deal of unpaid work after graduating in July 2008. I’ve now been offered full-time employment and have realised that I’ve gained an awful lot from interning (it is a verb by now, isn’t it?) and believe it was worth much more than an MA in my case.

However, there are too many examples of employers offering the interns very little apart from the name of the organisation on one’s CV. Take this as an example. Filing? Booking flights? Expenses claims? Basically, they can’t afford another decent full or part-time administrator which they clearly need. And there’s no mention of expenses. Shame on UNHCR.

Much of the cynicism surrounding internships is extremely justified. So I’m thinking about what I did (and didn’t) get from the two internships I did, and how I think the organisations helped me. From this I considered what general principles would ideally be standard when it comes to being a non-shitty employer helping an unpaid worker.

I always like when employers let you know they’ll give you a reference. Wow, I’m going to be doing X amount of months of unpaid labour and you’re going to write a paragraph saying I’m good? Damn bloody right you are!

But what else can they offer?

First of all, reasonable expenses should be standard. I was not working for huge corporates (or indeed small corporates) and I got lunch and travel. Anything less is exploitation and hopefully this blog can be a vehicle to expose such exploitation.

Secondly, interns should be asked (after they have been offered a place as well as or instead of at an interview where the question may seem loaded) what they hope to get out of the placement, what skills they would like to develop and what areas they would like to work in. Interns should be encouraged to be creative and innovative wherever possible. A specific project for the intern to work on will avoid them just being there to lick envelopes and photocopy.

Third. If there is no likely job at the end of the internship, employers should make an effort to refer interns to jobs at partner/parallel organisations – particularly easy in politics.

Fourth. Networking skills should be encouraged and nurtured. Interns should be invited to events, and given help and tips on writing CVs and cover letters to prospective employers.

Finally, just be nice to your intern. They are a member of the team and should be invited to team meetings, social events etc.

But even if employers did all of this and more internships would still be the preserve of the middle-classes who’ve contacts or a base in London. Should there be more internship opportunities in local government? Internships with Councillors? Should employers make an effort to provide free accommodation?

What else can we do for the interns and wannabe interns of the UK?

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