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Diversity blog: It’s not what you know… the trouble with internships

Diversity blog: It’s not what you know… the trouble with internships, Image by Zach-Dunn
Image by Zach-Dunn

Dan Robertson

Introducing the new Diversity Milkround blog from Dan Robertson at the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion. Every month he’ll be talking about inclusion issues affecting students and graduates.

The media storm over the Government’s unpaid work scheme seems to have blown over. Let’s remind ourselves what all the fuss was about: Campaigners had accused many of our High Street stores of ‘slave labour’, in offering unpaid work placements to the unemployed. Additionally news emerged that many young people were threatened with having their benefits removed if they refused to take part. In the middle of the chaos, whilst Argos wanted assurances that young people who did not take part will keep their benefits, others, including Burger King, Waterstones, Maplin and Poundland pulled out of the scheme faster than you could say ‘free labour’.

Chris Grayling, the Employment Minister has since re-assured us all that benefits claimants on the work scheme who drop out at any time within the eight-week placement will not have their benefits removed.

I think it’s fair to say that the implementation of the scheme was a bit of a fiasco. This is a real shame given the country’s desperate need to offer young people the opportunities to gain access to meaningful work experience.

This leads us into the related thorny territory of internships, to pay or not to pay? A recent piece in the London Evening Standard (March 8th) provided a number of examples of graduates using the (unpaid) internship route to gain a heads start on the career ladder. This topic came up again this week when discussing the Government’s Social Mobility Strategy with a number of colleagues. As stated on the official website ( the new strategy aims to ensure everyone has a fair opportunity to fulfil their potential, regardless of the circumstances of their birth. A key component of the strategy is Nick Clegg’s Business Compact which calls on businesses to improve skills and create jobs by providing opportunities for all young people to get a foot on the ladder. Offering internships openly and providing financial support to ensure fair access is key. Firms signed up so far include lawyers Allen & Overy, management consultants, KPMG, Channel 4 and the Royal Institute of British Architects. They have agreed to offer placements and pay the national minimum wage or "reasonable out-of-pocket expenses" for any work done in their offices. A step in the right direction. Right?

Not quite. According to Jonathan Clifton, a Research Fellow at IPPR, the key indicators of social mobility suggest we are actually on a downward spiral. (Children from poor homes are half as likely to achieve five good GCSEs as their better off peers, and they account for less than one in a hundred Oxbridge students. Additionally, applications for university courses are down 12% largely as a result of the rise in tuition fees).

The Oxbridge connection raises an interesting and valid concern. In 21st century Britain access to good internships often results from who you know, rather than what you know. Do you have a mother who can get you a summer placement at that fancy City law firm? Or an uncle working for an international accountancy firm?

Wouldn’t we more likely see results if we asked business to ‘ring fence’ internships for those from deprived backgrounds? The Government’s social Mobility Strategy is without doubt, full of good intention. It is also, slightly off the mark if it thinks offering paid internships will actually halt the slide towards wider social inequalities. I feel another storm brewing.

By Dan Robertson, Diversity & Inclusion Director, Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion (

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