The Unpaid Internship Debate

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The Australian Fair Work Ombudsmen recently released a report that identified a growing trend in unpaid internships. In the media and law industries, internships are crucial for students to gain experience out in real world. But in this economy do you think university students can afford to commit to an unpaid internship? Does experience hold more value over being able to pay the bills?

[quote]“The media sphere is cut throat. It’s an industry centred around who you know not what you know.”[/quote] Lily Davis (Macquarie University Media Society) expresses students’ struggles among work experience, studies and living.

I stare into the vapid depths of my student fridge, contemplating what can be cooked up from a can of tuna, one questionable banana and half an onion. It’s bleak. Until I remember that my soul is nourished and the hunger in my belly satisfied by the knowledge that yes, I’m in hot pursuit of my media future. And there are countless other students out there, struggling through piling bills, nights out, groceries and that dreaded rent day – fighting destitute destinies for a bit of professional fulfilment.

The media sphere is cut throat. It’s an industry centred around who you know not what you know. In many cases, ‘who you know’ is fostered through the industry, which for students, means gaining that experience from internships. While degrees undoubtedly build skills and knowledge, employment offers come through connections. However with so many people desperate for experience, is there a strong enough incentive for organisations to pay their happy helpers?

Student living is expensive. Conflict arises between professional passion and satisfying everyday necessities. Is it too difficult to juggle that part-time job that feeds you, the internship you scored on the side and the requirements of a full-time degree? Which commitment will be first on the chopping block?

Many universities strongly encourage internships as part of study, Macquarie University included. This proves to be a smart solution, but surely no one can disagree that nabbing a paid internship would just be nice.

Maybe it’s time to examine this trend closely and encourage more investment in paid internships for media students. Or maybe I should just seek solace in passion for this line of work. While financial pressures can test that hunger in the belly there clearly continues to be enough driven students to fuel the industry, which really is inspiring in itself.

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[quote]“The problem is only those who have the means to support themselves during the internship can embark on the program.”[/quote] Tom Craven (Macquarie University Law Society) argues that the inequality gap is widening.

Unpaid internships are becoming more and more common in Australia, as is unpaid work in general. It is not uncommon for young people to be asked to commit to unpaid work trials before commencing any kind of work. Unpaid internships are an extension of this idea. From the business point of view these kinds of programs are great. They can give a new perspective to the company from younger eyes as well as provide them with the opportunity to try out a potential employee before they ‘buy’ them.

Unpaid internships may even sometimes appear beneficial from the perspective of the trainee, as they gain valuable experience as well as a potential entry point into the company. But like most things in industrial relations, there is more to this issue than meets the eye. Firstly, unpaid internships are now being used by some companies to cut costs. Interns are used to do work that usually employees would do in an effort to save money. This in itself is abhorrent as the concept of ‘free work’ should be an oxymoron in a developed labour economy like Australia’s.

The real problem with unpaid internships is not, however, the ability of the intern to pay the bills. This is because if they are doing an unpaid internship then they will usually have the means to support themselves during the program. The problem is only those who have the means to support themselves during the internship can embark on the program. So those who do not have the means are effectively locked out of a potential way of employment. This ultimately leads to a decrease in economic productivity and an increase in inequality as the best person may not get the job, but rather the person who had the means to support themselves through the internship.