Features 21.01.19

Unravelling internships: What do they actually involve?

The term 'internships' is a very broad term. How do we define them? What it is like to undertake one? We investigate further.
Avantika Vaishnav
Avantika Vaishnav

This article was written by an external contributor, Lucy Skoulding. Lucy is a multimedia journalist and published fiction author who writes on topics like careers, finance, health, and culture. Currently she is a senior reporter and editor at Accountancy Age and the social media coordinator at Women in Journalism. She writers freelance on topics she’s passionate about when she can squeeze it in. You can find her on Twitter  here.

Defining internships is like your first time trying to solve a Rubik’s cube. You try to think of all possibilities, realise there are millions out there, and eventually work yourself into a bubbling frustration.

There are no laws governing internships in the UK apart from those dictating pay, and even then companies are getting away with ignoring them. Before you undertake a big commitment for the sake of your career, it’s only fair that you should know its value and what’s involved. Facts like the duration, pay and value of an internship have no uniformity and are often not even specified in job adverts.

In many cases, the disparity between what an internship should entail versus what is currently offered needs to be ironed out. Internships can be a fantastic way to get on the career ladder, but only if they’re properly delivered. With nearly one in three employers in the UK currently offering internships, this is a mystery that needs to be solved. First, let’s look at how internships are defined.

What is an internship?


According to the  Oxford English Dictionary an internship is when “a student or trainee works, sometimes without pay, in order to gain work experience or satisfy requirements for a qualification”. This definition proves how the concept of an internship is ambiguous, since they are ‘sometimes without pay’ and there is no further clarification on what ‘work’ the student or trainee must do.

Since everyone on the internet appears to have a different view of internships, Debut asked those who have already interned to share their thoughts.

Adam Crawford, intern at  Futrsmpl, said an internship is “a position that gives you the opportunity to gain hands-on experience, stimulating your personal development and future employability.”  

Jennifer* had a slightly different take on the definition. “Internships should be about being a sponge, so shadowing is really useful. It shouldn’t entail the same amount of work and responsibility as a full-time role, otherwise they should just advertise the position as an entry level job.”

A report by the  Institute for Public Policy goes further to explain that internships differ to work experience in length, time commitment, and work expectations. Internships usually last between a few months and a year, while work experience will typically last a few weeks. Interns usually work full-time hours, though these can vary by industry. Internships are just not training courses, as interns will be expected to do the same work that would be undertaken by a permanent employee.

The lack of legality also means there’s ambiguity around what interns do. While some only shadow permanent employees, a  YouGov survey revealed that 84% of respondents who worked for a company that had interns believed their interns undertook useful work.

The different types of internships


One intern might have a completely different experience to another. Factors which influence this include: the internship length and hours worked, what the intern does, what they learn, their level of responsibility and how much support they receive.

This means internships can be categorised in different ways. But perhaps the most popular division is by duration.

According to Prospects, student internships tend to be shorter, while graduate internships last longer because the worker does not have to fit the placement into holidays. By duration, internships could be divided into taster internships that last a few weeks, summer internships, year-long placements for undergraduates, and graduate internships which last a few months to a year.

The average full-time UK employee spends 42 hours and 18 minutes at work every week and most intern hours will reflect those of the industry they are in. This means interns usually work 35 to 40 hour weeks, although we see that number significantly increase when it comes to  banking internships, where interns have reported to work from early in the morning until past midnight.

You can also divide internships according to pay. These include: those which pay a monthly salary, those which pay a stipend, those with a regular, fixed sum (which is usually less than a salary but accompanied by other benefits) and those which do not pay at all or only pay expenses.

Internship, work experience or job?


Work experience is  defined by the government as a “specified period of time that a person spends with your business during which they have an opportunity to learn about working life and the environment.” It tends to only last a few weeks and be unpaid.

Internships fall into a mysterious category of their own, where interns are usually classed as ‘workers’ and must therefore be paid. However, there can be loopholes. Entitlement to the National Minimum Wage has nothing to do with being an intern or the type of work you do. The government has divided people performing services for companies into three categories: worker, volunteer and employee. These statuses decide whether the person must legally be paid or not.

A person is a ‘worker’ if they have a contract and their reward is money or another benefit; they are a ‘volunteer’ if they work for a charity or voluntary organisation; and they are an ‘employee’ if, like a worker, they have a contract and receive money, but they also get extra rights like Statutory Sick Pay, parental leave and protection against unfair dismissal.

While most interns should legally be paid, unfortunately businesses do not have to cough up if the internship is part of a school or degree placement. They also don’t have to pay if the intern is working for a charity, or if they are just  work shadowing. A company may also not pay if you  don’t have an employment contract which states you have to turn up for particular hours. Companies should automatically organise your contract before you start unless you’re in one of the exempt scenarios above. Always ensure you sign one if you know you should be getting paid.

Problems can arise when the  lines blur between the roles of intern and full-time employee working in an equivalent job or department.

Jennifer* described her own experience as an example of this. “I’m doing a six-month internship now, but I’m being paid very little to do exactly the same as my colleagues who are full-time staff.”

While legally internships must be paid apart from the above exceptions, some businesses are still not complying with the law. Back in March 2018, Amalia Illgner, former intern at Monocle, revealed she was taking the company to court over her unpaid wages. Amalia received ВЈ30 per eight-hour day for her two-month internship, where she was juggling a demanding role and even had to work on the weekend when deadline day was approaching.

What should you consider before interning?


Before accepting an internship you should consider a multitude of factors.

The pay

As mentioned, unpaid internships are currently illegal unless the intern fulfils one of the criteria points described above. Interns must be paid at least the National Minimum Wage or National Living Wage. But despite  75 percent of the public agreeing they should be banned,  illegal internships still exist and, in some industries, are a main way people break into them.

In 2017,  the BBC reported that there was an estimated 10,000-15,000 of these illegal internships available. According to social mobility charity  The Sutton Trust, one in four graduates (27 percent) have undertaken an unpaid internship. Most are just trying to get a foot in the door, but many students and graduates from low to middle income backgrounds cannot afford this, especially when most internships are based in London. The charity worked out that an  unpaid internship would cost one person living in London a minimum of ВЈ1,019 a month. They are fuelling the rising inequality gap and to date no companies have been prosecuted for them.

Pay is one area you need to look at before taking on an internship. Find out how much your pay will be and be aware that companies can still break the law by paying you some money, but not enough, to give off the appearance they are being compliant.

The location

You also need to think about where the internship you want is located and then work out whether it is feasible. If you have to relocate, is this something you want and can you afford it?

In November 2018,  the BBC reported that one in three new jobs created in the UK are based in London, so it’s unsurprising that many internships are in the capital too. It might be feasible for you to intern in London, but if it’s not then there are still internships available across different industries around the country. If you still have your heart set on an internship in the capital and you are offered a place, consider negotiating with the employer over  working remotely or asking if they would fund your travel or move.

Internship length

Be wary of being exploited for your time. As already described, the duration of your internship will wholly depend on what kind of internship you are doing. It will usually be pre-arranged with your employer or may even be left to you to decide how long you can intern for.

If you are earning the minimum wage for eight hour days but working 14, you are being underpaid. Remember that Amalia’s ВЈ30 for an eight hour day was already a gross underpayment, but was worsened when she felt she had to work at the weekend too. Ensure you check the duration of the internship and the hours expected as well as asking about the pay.

What’s the value of an internship?


Finally, before saying yes to an internship you need to think about the value it will bring to you personally.

Social media specialist Natalia Pareja Ruiz said internships are an opportunity to gain work experience. “It’s the best thing you can do during your time at college or university. It gives you better options when you graduate.”

Speaking of his own experience, Adam Crawford said: “I strongly believe that nothing beats learning while doing. My internship is providing me with an incredibly valuable opportunity to learn – in a practical sense – things that I would never have been able to take out of university.”

Emma*, however, thought her intern experience at the makeup company had its pros and cons: “I was given as much if not more responsibility than most entry-level roles, but was seen as ‘bottom of the food chain’ because of my job title.”

Before doing an internship, find out as much as you can about what it will involve day-to-day and what opportunities you will get. Elements of an internship that will add value include your responsibilities, training and development, networking opportunities and future opportunities like a job offer.

For the most part, legitimate internships from respected companies will be  a good decision. Having professional experience in a competitive job market is really important as long as you find out as much about it as you can beforehand.

What have we found out?


You might agree that defining internships has not been an easy ride. We found out that an internship should differ in length, time commitment, and expectations from a full-time job. It should be viewed as an educational leapfrog into a chosen career, meaning the teaching side of it is important, whether that be on-the-job or in the form of structured training.

We also discovered there’s quite a bit to consider before saying ‘yes’ to an internship, including pay, location, and the length of time you will spend working. It can be tempting to feel like you owe the business everything for giving you an internship, but remember your rights. Unless you meet the exception criteria, you should receive at least the minimum wage for the hours you work. That way, you can know that you’re being treated right while kicking ass in your internship.

*Some names in this article have been changed

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