Intern politics

Internships have been making headlines. Hannah Langworth takes a look at how the City deals with its most junior workers

Students or recent graduates have been found working as interns (or the equivalent) in organisations in every sector for years. But this summer's crop will find themselves in the spotlight, as their role is at the top of the political agenda.

The idea of an internship is originally an American one, but over the past fifteen to twenty years, internships have grown significantly in popularity on this side of the Atlantic. I seem to remember that when the Clinton administration was battling the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998, the term "intern" often required a brief explanation in British media reports. Fast forward a decade or so, and you'll find the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development estimating in spring 2010 that over a fifth of UK employers were planning to take on an intern (CIPD).

Any interns temporarily joining an organisation in the coming months will do so in the context of increased media attention on their role - and, in particular, on how they are remunerated. In winter 2009, an employment tribunal in Reading found that film company intern Nicola Vetta was entitled to be paid for her work, and several groups arguing for interns' rights, most notably Intern Aware, have sprung up in the past couple of years, arguing that a failure to pay interns properly effectively excludes those who do not have access to other sources of financial support. And last spring, the issue was highlighted by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who pledged that all Westminster internships would be widely advertised and properly remunerated as part of the coalition's pledge to increase social mobility. Internships also made it into the news in February 2011 when it was revealed that the Conservatives had auctioned off unpaid internships (in many cases for thousands of pounds each), at an annual party fundraising event. Cameron has now banned "cash for internships", but stated in an interview in late April 2011 that he saw no problem with offering work experience to the children of friends and acquaintances.

Some City and finance companies offered unpaid internships for sale at the Tory fundraiser, including hedge fund Caxton Associates and brokerage firm ICAP. But, generally speaking, City employers cannot be accused of restricting access to internships to those who can afford to work for nothing, and even to pay for the privilege. Internships at most of the larger investment banks, law firms and other City organisations are, officially at least, allocated on merit and well-paid, often at a rate considerably above the minimum wage.

Furthermore, these organisations are also less likely to be guilty of other charges levelled at employers by those campaigning on behalf of interns. It's common practice for interns in many industries to spend a large portion of their time doing administrative work - references to such duties are frequently seen in intern position job specifications. But City employers tend to give interns more demanding duties. A law student who interned at three City firms in summer 2010 told us that he was generally given interesting tasks connected to the work of the department he was in - and no administration, "apart from organising a lunch with one of my supervisors and three other lawyers, which was actually for my benefit." Such events are not unusual. Banks, law firms and other City employers often offer interns other opportunities alongside daily duties, such as networking drinks, meals with senior people, and field trips to, say, Lloyds of London or the Bank of England - one City organisation even used to Eurostar all its summer students to the firm's Brussels or Paris office for a day.

Interns often also complain that employers take advantage of their eagerness to enter a particular industry, and profit from their unpaid work without feeling any obligation to consider them seriously for a permanent role. The current number of graduates attempting to enter certain fields means that some employers have even been accused of ditching their paid entry-level roles altogether in favour of having junior work performed by a steady stream of free wannabes. However, most City placements come with the understanding that if an intern does well they'll be seriously considered for a graduate role - and many recruits are ex-interns.

Of course, the reason that City firms can offer paid internships with perks, and pay other staff to do the filing and man the switchboard, is because they usually take on more graduates permanently and can allocate much more money to reeling them in than, say, a charity, small arts organisation, fashion company, or MP's office. The extent to which this state of affairs is fair or desirable is another story. So too is a full assessment of the pros and cons of a career in the City against working in one of these other sectors - any career path should be judged on more than the quality of the intern experience it can offer. But credit should be given to the City where it's due.

Comments