Some commentators falsely suppose that unpaid internships are no more than exploitation of free labour. They suggest that interns working for no money deprive others of paid employment, and that they give employers a low-cost way of cutting production costs. Some campaign in Parliament to make unpaid internships illegal. This approach misses the value that unpaid internships provide.
For an employer, recruitment has its costs. They are taking on someone unknown, someone who comes with risks. Do they have alcohol problems? Can they carry out assignments? Are they trouble-makers? If they have worked as an intern, they are to some extent a known quantity. They have had a chance to show their worth and reveal any problems.
The value to the intern is that they get a foot in the door, plus the opportunity to discover if the job is something they would be comfortable with and capable of doing well at. Many career advisors tell people trying to enter the job market to volunteer their services on an unpaid basis for a month or two, and many of those who take this advice find it gives them access to jobs from which a simple application accompanied by a CV would have precluded them.
There is a bias in the intern system, of course. It is that only those who can afford to do so can take unpaid internships. It might need the Bank of Mom and Dad to sustain them while they do so, and some parents simply cannot afford this.
Furthermore, there is an unofficial network of professional people prepared to accept each other’s sons and daughters as interns to help them set a first foot on the job ladder. The answer is not to seek ways to ban this by outlawing unpaid internships, but to develop organizations to help those who lack sufficiently wealthy or well-connected parents. Job-market equivalents of the Suttton Trust can train people to apply for internships and help fund those who need support while doing so.
Given such measures to improve and extend access to them, internships can be a vital tool in securing and maintaining a vibrant job market. They should be encouraged not banned.