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Internships – a good opportunity or a waste of time?

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Internships and work experience placements can often get bad press, so we look at whether they are a beneficial experience for both Employers and the interns, or unethical exploitation! We also look at what they offer (and what they should offer!) in more detail.

You can read our Guide to Apprenticeships here.

Generally, the problem with many Internships are that Employers don’t pay a wage to their interns, or pay a very low wage, which means they are potentially breaching minimum wage legislation (for more details see below).

In 2021, in a poll of more than 3,000 students by Prospects, they found that during 2020, the first year of the Coronavirus pandemic, less than one in five students found work experience.  The survey found that just 17 per cent of university, college and sixth-form students undertook work experience in that year, with a quarter of students losing work experience placements because of the outbreak. Of those that did find work experience, nearly three in five (59 per cent) said they had not been paid for their work.

A previous report by The Sutton Trust at the end of 2018, found that in the previous two years, 56% of internships were unpaid.  In particular, in the media industry, 86% were unpaid.

So what are internships? 

They’re called various things but they can be basically classified as:

  • Work experience placements (either organised or unofficial) – while you’re at school/college and which will generally be unpaid and for short periods of time
  • Work Placements (or Placement Years, Industrial Placements, Sandwich Years) – official placements that are part of a Degree (or other further education) course, which often last for an academic year and usually provide a salary/wage
  • Internships (or Graduate Placements, Summer Internships, Gap years) – during term-time/holidays or when you leave University/College. Here is where the biggest problems arise – paid or unpaid? See below
  • Plus Volunteering and Work-shadowing opportunities (generally unpaid).
  • There are also unpaid ‘work trials’ - which are common in the hospitality and retail industries - and these can be unpaid, but only in certain circumstances.  You can read our advice about unpaid work trials here

While pay is obviously an important issue, for many students and graduates (or people of any age looking to retrain), a placement, whether paid or unpaid, is a valuable and necessary addition to their CV; allowing them access to employment and contacts to further their career, improved communication skills and a better understanding of the realities of working life. 

But should you accept an internship if there’s no pay offered? Is it an opportunity not to be missed, or a waste of time when you could be earning cash elsewhere? There was an organisation called the The National Council for Work Experience (which was dissolved in 2020), which had useful guidelines to help students decide if an unpaid internship is worth it, including:

  • Clarify your and the Employers expectations of the placement at the start
  • Is the placement valuable in that it gives you insight into a particular industry, improves your skills and clarifies your career aspirations
  • Re-consider the value of the internship as it progresses – if it ceases to supply useful contacts and training opportunities and it feels like exploitation - leave it!

Who campaigns for paid internships?

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) have long campaigned against the exploitation of interns and supports properly structured work placements for journalists to gain valuable experience in the industry. In 2011 they backed a student who had worked for a Web Publishing company for two months and took a case to an Employment Tribunal for non-payment of the NMW and holiday pay. They ultimately won the case (more details below).

The NUJ published Exploiting the Dream: work experience guidance which you can find here which says “A 2018 National Council for the Training of Journalists survey found that the majority (87 per cent) of new entrants completed a period of work experience or worked as an intern before gaining their first paid job. The vast majority (95 per cent) were unpaid and the work experience or internship lasted an average of eight weeks, although the lengths varied widely from short (lasting one to two weeks) to 52 weeks.

The current UK Government will not legislate on this issue.  An SNP MP called Stewart Malcolm McDonald continues to raise this issue after he tried to introduce law in 2017/18 called the Unpaid Trial Work Periods (Prohibition) Bill, which the Government blocked.  He led a Westminster Hall debate on 29 March 2023 on the use of unpaid work trials; but the current Government are clearly not interested in legislating in this area. 

Who offers interns and work experience?

While popular for a long time in the creative industries, they are now offered across all business sectors, the private sector and charities.

All types and sizes of company offer internships – the more prestigious internships will pay reasonable salaries (and will get more applicants!) – and there are many websites that offer placement opportunities in the UK and abroad.  For example: 

  • Employment4students advertise a variety of jobs for graduates (holiday jobs, gap year jobs, internships etc.). 
  • The NHS have information about work experience in NHS settings here.
  • Prospects, the experts in graduate careers, have a useful website here
  • Sky TV offer summer internships and Graduate placements as part of their ‘Early Careers’ programme.
  • The BBC run ‘Get In Taster Day experiences’ starting summer 2023 for 16 and 17 year-olds about to complete Year 12. 
  • ScreenSkills offer five e-learning modules called Getting into the screen industries to support people looking for their first break.  (ScreenSkills is the skills body for the screen industries; film, television, VFX (visual effects), animation and games).

In the UK there is a National Work Experience Week (which took place between 24-28 April in 2023) which is an online event aimed at bringing students together with employers to talk about what work experience is, its benefits and the opportunities available.  You can see the website here.

How important are these placements for Employers?

Many argue that internships are an important contribution to a company’s talent pool and also help the ongoing image of the company’s brand. The CIPD say that organisations that offer work experience, apprenticeships and internship programmes typically report significant benefits to their business – you can see more information here.

In their 2022 Internships that work: a guide for Employers the CIPD say their guide “offers employers best practice recommendations on how to get the most out of an internship programme, as well as contributing to the intern’s professional development. It also provides a practical checklist for setting up and running a programme and a model internship agreement to formalise the intern–employer relationship.”

The CIPD also have a guide to Virtual Work Experience here.

However, some critics would argue that Employers use Internships as a cheap source of labour.

The National Council for Work Experience (now defunct) did also provide useful tips for Employers on arranging placements:

  • Plan in advance to ensure there’s a meaningful project that’s appropriate to the skills of the student
  • Draw up a development plan/job description/project outline and have an idea of what skills you need for the position and help them gain these skills
  • Interview and treat work-placement students just as you would any other employee
  • Provide an induction of company objectives, health and safety, key staff
  • Assign a mentor to provide them with guidance and supervision. Organise progress reviews and feedback
  • Provide a notice period if the Intern wants to leave early or you want them to leave early. 

So should Employers pay their Interns? 

Unfortunately, this can be a confusing area for Employers! The circumstances where internships can be offered work without pay are limited – ‘real’ (unpaid) interns should not be carrying out a role that is performed by a current worker, and should not have set hours or set tasks if they are unpaid (and can also refuse to attend/do work!).

Employers must pay the National Minimum Wage if you’re a ‘worker’ (or Employee) over compulsory school leaving age. If you’re a Worker, you’re also entitled to holiday pay, sick pay, and so on (see our Guide to Your Employment Rights), and are covered by discrimination laws under the Equality Act 2010. A worker can’t waive their rights to the NMW (i.e. choose not to receive it) if they’re entitled to it.

To be eligible for the NMW, it doesn’t matter what your placement/job is called, it matters what you do at work.

A ‘Worker‘ is defined as someone:

  • Who works under a contract of employment (written or not), which gives an obligation for the individual to perform the work and an obligation on the Employer to provide the work
  • Who is rewarded for the work by money OR benefits/expenses
  • Who undertakes to do the work personally, for someone else, and who is not genuinely self-employed.

So, if an Employer advertises for an intern, offering a reward in the form of some payment or some benefit, this would suggest the intern is likely to be a ‘worker’. If the placement offers paid work on completion of it this could also point to a ‘Worker’ relationship. This means the Intern should be paid at least the relevant age-related National Minimum Wage.

In the NUJ case (TPG Web Publishing v Hudson 2011) the Employment Tribunal decided that one of the key factors in deciding whether the student (Keri Hudson) was actually a ‘Worker’, and so was entitled to the NMW, was looking at the actual role she was performing. The Tribunal decided that Miss Hudson’s work, which included hiring, managing and training other interns and scheduling articles - and her daily working hours of 10am-6pm - went beyond being trained and was, in fact, a proper job. Ms Hudson was awarded just over £1,000.  

Exceptions to the NMW:

  • Volunteers and voluntary workers are an exception, who may not qualify for the NMW, and we look at those categories in a separate article on volunteering here.
  • Another exemption under the NMW Act is that if the placement is part of a further or higher education course and lasts up to a year, you are not entitled to the NMW.
  • If you are solely shadowing someone else, and have no set hours or set tasks, you are unlikely to be a Worker and so are not eligible for the NMW.
  • Read our advice about unpaid ‘work trials’ here, which is another complicated area!  

And finally

Acas run a Workplace Rights Helpline on 0300 123 1100 which can advise you more about your pay rights in this area. 

Also – Employers need to consider whether their Business Insurance allows interns/work experience in the workplace – often this Insurance may only cover those aged over 18.

Please note that the advice given on this website and by our Advisors is guidance only and cannot be taken as an authoritative or current interpretation of the law. It can also not be seen as specific advice for individual cases. Please also note that there are differences in legislation in Northern Ireland.
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Lesley Furber
HR Consultant
Updated on
June 15, 2023

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