The decline in the proportion of graduates entering high-skilled work has led to a rise in internships, offering interns experience in the workplace and employers a cheap form of labour. This report addresses the problems this is creating in the labour market, and puts forward policies to prevent internships becoming a barrier – rather than an aid – to social mobility.
Each year up to 70,000 internships take place, offering mostly graduates the chance to gain experience in the workplace. Many internships, however, do not offer meaningful learning opportunities, have poor working conditions, and are inaccessible to young people without the connections and know-how to get one. Internships should no longer remain unregulated, of variable quality and restricted to a privileged few. Providing equal opportunities for young people of different backgrounds to enter the professions is important both from a moral perspective and to ensure that businesses have access to the widest pool of talent. For internships to be a driver of social mobility rather than a barrier to it, universities, employers and the government should act together to increase the overall availability of internships and minimise any barriers to takeup for those who are disadvantaged.
The proportion of graduates in high-skilled work is in long-term decline: while 61.3 per cent of graduates aged 21 to 30 were employed in high-skill occupations in 2008, today only 55.8 per cent are. Characteristics including socioeconomic background, schooling and ethnicity are still strongly related to the jobs prospects of young people, with those who went to private school earning more even compared to other graduates in professional jobs.
Within this challenging and competitive labour market, internships have emerged, offering young people a chance to gain experience in the workplace and employers a form of cheap labour, as well as a way to find top talent for more permanent roles. Each year 11,000 internships are advertised – but the true number that take place is estimated to be as high as 70,000 per year. Internships offered by top graduate recruiters have consistently risen each year since 2010 (by as much as 50 per cent in total). Nearly half of these employers report that candidates who have not gained work experience through an internship will ‘have little or no chance of receiving a job offer’ for their organisations’ graduate programmes, regardless of academic qualifications.
The sharp decline in job opportunities at the time of the recession led to an oversupply of graduates, with greater competition for good graduate jobs meaning that firms were able to access highly skilled workers even for low-paid, insecure work, such as internships. Now that the economy is recovering we would expect to see internships receding and entry-level jobs taking their place. It appears, however, that internships have become a permanent feature of the graduate labour market, and are now a ‘must have’ for the typical graduate career.
Although prime minister Theresa May agrees that ‘advancement in today’s Britain is still too often determined by wealth or circumstance, by an accident of birth rather than talent and by privilege not merit’, one of the key routes into top jobs – internships – is closed off to many, due to a lack of connections and insufficient financial capital to subsidise low-paid insecure work. Our focus groups with graduates also show that discrimination, low confidence in navigating opaque recruitment practices, and a lack of knowledge in how to find good placements can prevent young people from less privileged backgrounds from securing an internship. In short, internships are acting as a barrier to social mobility rather than being a driver of it.
Download the employer’s guide to internships that accompanies this report (Internships as opportunity: How employers should offer accessible, high-quality placements)