Despite rorting of internship programs, they’re still worthwhile

Some companies have been known to treat interns as free labour instead of skilling them. But employment rates suggest internships are still worthwhile. Shutterstock

In Australia, interns rarely get paid. Students and prospective employees undertake internships in order to skill themselves in the industry they wish to work in and to get a foot in the door.

Issues arise, however, when the internship becomes less about skilling and more about free labour. A case currently before the Federal Circuit Court involving two young journalists and sports broadcaster Crocmedia is about just that. Crocmedia has had to backpay the interns and may face fines given the “internship” involved working night shifts for seven days out of ten, for six months unpaid.

There will always be stories about how companies have taken advantage of students. The temptation of free labour, and a young and eager mind to do all the jobs paid staff don’t want to do, is too great. But research shows students who have undertaken an internship are more likely to get employed and, in the current state of youth unemployment and graduate under/unemployment, young people are desperate to get a job by any means.

What is an internship and what is free work?

The backlash against internships began in the US where mass media company Conde Nast has just been made to backpay millions to former interns. It is likely to expand here as more and more companies engage interns.

Andrew Stewart from the University of Adelaide Law School, with colleague Professor Rosemary Owens, has been working with the Fair Work Ombudsman for several years to investigate the practice of providing internships in Australia. He says there is a key distinction about the kind of internship approved by the Fair Work Ombudsman: is it part of formal study?

There are businesses which take on interns and give appropriate training – and there are businesses which organise their labour needs around a reliance on unpaid interns

And Professor Stewart makes it clear that it’s those companies – where interns form part of the business model - that are at risk of being taken to court by the Fair Work Ombudsman. Internships that are part of a subject or course are not the problem.

A good internship is priceless

As a journalism educator, one of the liveliest internship programs I’ve ever had the pleasure of being involved with was run by Tory Maguire, the former editor of the former Punch. Maguire asked for applications in the same way one would apply for a job: cover letter, resumé. Maguire was flooded with applicants, even though each of the senior journalism students knew the work would be unpaid.

The Punch was a News Ltd publication and it was avowedly popular, totally on trend, and a very good training ground for young people who wanted to go into mainstream online news. Maguire ran a tight ship – she expected people to turn up on time, complete tasks, have ideas and be loyal to the organisation.

In return, she gave the students feedback. She gave the university feedback. She took time to take students from the classroom to the workplace. She also came to the classroom to share her insights.

The students didn’t stay forever – the timeframe was about eight weeks. And almost all the students who became interns at The Punch got something out of it. Almost all got bylines. Some part-time jobs. Some full-time jobs. And some realised a few days into their time at The Punch that popular mainstream journalism wasn’t for them.

I recount this story because it’s the dream for journalism educators: an internship under the guidance of an experienced editor that then turns into paid employment. If those interns hadn’t turned up, The Punch would still have been published each day.

As part of his research for the Fair Work Ombudsman, Andrew Stewart approached me to survey final-year UTS journalism students in 2011 who undertook two internships as part of their degrees. He quotes one of our students in his research:

I wouldn’t be where I am today (in an industry I love, working for one of the most respected companies in the field) without having interned first. People with a sense of entitlement underestimate how necessary work experience is in this job market.

His survey showed that 100% of those surveyed undertook industry placements in order to better understand the industry; 66% of those who undertook placements said they were able to go on to paid work as a result of those placements.

UTS’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Education and Students, Shirley Alexander, wants to ensure that every student at UTS has access to an internship (or similar experience) during their time at UTS.

We want to make sure that our students have the best opportunity of gaining employment when they complete their degrees.

The UTS Business School trialled an internship program this semester. This involved not just an internship but also components of reflection and evaluation. Alexander is dismissive of those who say that universities should only be about academic work.

These things are not mutually exclusive – you can teach students all the theories in the world, but there’s no point if they can’t recognise situations in which they should be applied.

Josh Bornstein, a partner at Maurice Blackburn who specialises in industrial relations and employment law, sees the engagement of law interns as a useful way for prospective employers to gauge whether the student would be a good fit as an employee. He says an internship allows a law firm to see if young students can “cut the mustard”.

Des Saunders, the industry liaison manager for IT programs in the Faculty of Engineering and IT at UTS, said that in one of his smaller degrees, where internships are very well integrated into the course, in his experience students have a 100% employment success rate - and around 80% are offered employment with the employer who took them as interns.

There will always be anecdotes of rorting of the internship system, but that kind of employment rate is hard to ignore.

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