What is an internship?

Until the 1970s the term ‘internship’ was used rarely outside of the field of medicine and, even in this context, rarely outside of the US. Today, the scale of internships in the UK has been called endemic, and statistics would seem to support this.

In 2012 the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) reported that almost a third of the employers it surveys offer internships, with a further 12% planning to implement schemes within the next 12 months.

As of yet, no comprehensive, cross-sector research has been conducted into internships in the UK, meaning at this stage that little is conclusively known about the true scale and shape of the internship landscape. What interns do, what they learn, and how they ultimately benefit from these experiences remains somewhat of a mystery, a fact that has left many asking – are internships a genuine learning experience, or are they merely an exercise in free labour?

The creative industries (along with journalism and politics) have been singled out for their particularly high use of internships, not least because of the stiff competition for jobs and largely freelance and fixed-term nature of work in the sector which make the chance of an internship converting into stable work low. Perhaps in response to this increased pressure, Arts Council England published its first guidelines on the practice. Within this guide, internships are identified as being a widely known, “popular, well-established way to get into the arts”, indicating how common they have become within the sector. In 2010, nearly half of those in the creative workforce reported having done an unpaid internship.

A major issue facing those who would like to see more regulation of internships is that there is no formal, legal definition of an ‘intern’ or ‘internship’. The limited research and anecdotal evidence that has so far been collected suggests that internships can last anywhere between two weeks and twelve months, requiring between one and five days per week time commitment from the intern, and vary hugely in terms of workload, level of responsibility and supervision.

Another issue this raises is that many interns and companies believe internships to fall into a legal ‘grey area’ when it comes to pay.  National Minimum Wage legislation states that any person performing as a ‘worker’ should be paid at least the NMW rate, and although many interns fulfil this status (for example by having set hours, or carrying out work rather than purely work-shadowing), few – particularly in the creative industries – are being paid. There are two factors that further confuse this;

  1. that further and higher education students carrying out ‘work placements’ of up to twelve months are not entitled to NMW, and
  2. that employers with charitable status – something many arts organisations have – are allowed to take on ‘voluntary workers’ – that is, individuals performing as workers that they are not required to pay.

Since internships are such a popular way to ‘get into the arts’, many assert that this lack of wage enforcement acts as a barrier to those who cannot afford to work for free, especially those with families based outside of London, where the majority of internships are concentrated. This in turn has led to a homogeneous creative workforce that is 95% white and predominately middle class, with nearly half of workers being educated to graduate or postgraduate level. Furthermore, many believe that the creative industries have become over-reliant on the free labour that internships (and volunteering) provide, while at the same time training new entrants to the sector to accept precarious working conditions. In 2010, for example, 70% of the visual arts workforce was self-employed, and 59% earned less than £10,000.

A raft of reports have been produced in reaction to the spread of internships, but no consensus has been reached on the best way to handle this employment practice. While activist and intern-led groups such as Intern Aware and Internocracy campaign for an end to unpaid internships, government and industry bodies have tended to suggest alternatives to NMW enforcement, such as a loans system for internships or the introduction of a training wage in line with the Apprentice wage (currently £2.65 per hour). Another key issue these publications raise is one of quality, and of how best to assure that interns are receiving meaningful training rather than being asked to carry out low-skilled work with little chance of improving their skills or employment prospects.  In 2010, a National Internships Kitemark Scheme (NIKS) was proposed as one way of ensuring a minimum level of quality, but this is yet to materialise. Other kitemarks, such as the Internocracy Star Internship Programme (I.SIP) have fallen out of existence.

Recognising the need for good quality, paid internships, several schemes have emerged which provide funding to both interns and employers to enable these experiences to take place. The AWP Internships Programme provides recent graduates from the University of the Arts London Widening Participation programme with high-quality, paid internships at selected arts organisations. The DCMS Jerwood Creative Bursaries Scheme, which ran from 2010-2012, placed 42 recent graduates from low-income backgrounds into arts organisations across England. A third of these placements became permanent positions within host organisations after the initial, funded, six months had ended. In 2012, The Creative Society (formally New Deal of the Mind) in conjunction with Creative Access established a scheme to provide opportunities for paid internships in the creative industries for young people from under-represented black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, in addition to its existing creative placement programme.

Given that many degree programmes, including those in creative subjects, now feature optional or even mandatory periods of ‘internship’ (actually ‘work placements’ in this context, and covered by an exemption to NMW legislation), universities are also concerned about how to ensure quality. Now that students are paying up to £9000 per year of study, universities are under ever-increasing pressure to provide experiences that will strengthen students’ employability. With the government-commissioned Wilson review recommending that every full-time undergraduate student has the opportunity to “experience a structured, university-approved undergraduate internship during their period of study”, there seems little chance of the trend for internships in education, or confusion around the term, abating any time soon.


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