Will the National Minimum Wage really help interns?

National Minimum Wage

Over the last few years, there have been numerous calls from pressure groups and individuals for new legislation to force companies to pay their interns the National Minimum Wage. They argue that by allowing companies to use unpaid interns, the whole system of internships and work experience is undemocratic and tailored to those with affluent parents, who can afford to work for free. With internships rapidly becoming a vital rung on the career ladder, it is important that the experience is accessible for everyone and isn’t based on wealth or location. However, simply forcing companies to pay interns the National Minimum Wage won’t solve the problem of elite internships. If anything, it may make it worse. Smaller companies will no longer have the budget to take on interns, leaving only the bigger, multinational companies open for work experience. This lack of internship opportunities will also promote the idea of ‘unofficial’ internships, which would undoubtedly see graduates with good connections and an influential network offering to work for free. This will make internships and work experience even more elitist, basing opportunities on existing connections rather than talent and skills. In a recent BBC news article discussing the possible solution to ‘unfair’ internships, Tom Richmond from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development states that ‘the concern would be that if you put more pressure on businesses to pay them more, it could be they say they simply can’t take on internships any more, and then we would see a drastic reduction in the opportunities available’.

Another reason for avoiding the enforcement of National Minimum Wage for internships is the simple fact that it would still be almost impossible to rent accommodation in London, pay travelling expenses, buy food and generally live on £4.83 an hour. Without an existing place to stay, graduates who live outside London find it extremely difficult to stay in the capital for weeks at a time. The solution to opening up the world of internships to all graduates lies not in enforcing the National Minimum Wage, but in a range of solutions which avoid putting financial pressure on companies, particularly during this time of slow economic recovery. We at Inspiring Interns believe that student loans should be made available for those wishing to complete an internship over the summer. We also believe that affordable, short term accommodation should be provided for those interns who have nowhere to stay. This could take the form of University halls of residence, which are often left vacant over the summer period. Currently, £15 million is distributed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to universities to support internships. However, many university careers services are ill equipped to handle this and as a result have a deficit of willing students to take up these paid internships, due to a lack of communication and engagement.

The government shouldn’t be punishing companies for taking on interns. By doing this, the companies will simply stop offering work experience and as a result internships will become even more difficult for talented graduates to obtain. We need structural change from the government to make internships more accessible. Only then will internships become fair.