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Internships: Head start or labour trap?

Internships can provide valuable work experience to young people. But as they become more common, so does the risk of abuse, especially during economic downturns. ILO News looks at the benefits and drawbacks of this practice.

Article | 22 August 2012
GENEVA (ILO News) – With youth unemployment rates reaching dramatic levels, internships have become increasingly common in developed countries, as has controversy over the practice.

Internships are often considered a great way for young people to gather valuable work experience and get a foothold in the labour market.

Internships, apprenticeships and other work- experience schemes have increased as ways to obtain decent work." The youth employment crisis: A call for action, ILO 2012
Their importance has risen as graduates find it increasingly difficult to land a job. But widely reported abuses have led to vocal criticism of internships as a source of cheap, and often free, labour.

“The main objective of internships is to provide work experience for young people who otherwise often find themselves trapped in a ‘Catch 22’ situation in which they are unable to acquire work experience because they cannot find a first job, and cannot find a job because they do not have work experience,” said Gianni Rosas, the Coordinator of the ILO’s Youth Employment Programme.

Paid vs unpaid internships

Several governments have put in place legal safeguards against the exploitation of interns.

But the inappropriate use of internships has expanded in recent years, particularly in countries hit hard by the global crisis, and young people are increasingly voicing their concerns.

“Internships should always have a training component, since they are about on-the-job training. If they use young people for duties that are normally carried out by core workers this can be considered as disguised employment, which can be pursued in labour courts,” said Rosas.

One major issue is whether young interns should be paid or not.

Under US law, internships in the private sector are generally viewed as employment, though unpaid internships are legal under certain circumstances. Among the criteria for an internship to be unpaid is that it should have a strong training component, that the intern does not displace regular employees and that the employer derives no immediate advantage.

In France, interns do not have a legal right to a wage but must be given a bonus if their internship is more than two months in the same academic year. The so-called “Cherpion Law” of 2011 also states that internships cannot consist of tasks that could be done by a worker in a permanent position, and they must also offer training.

But critics say the laws are difficult to enforce.

High-profile US court cases, in which former interns claimed they were exploited, have put the issue in the spotlight, further fuelling controversy already stirred by Ross Perlin’s book “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.”

Another issue that has become prominent is that of the “professional” interns - young people who cannot find a job and get stuck in a vicious cycle of internships.

A need for “best practices”

A recent survey by the US National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) showed that 60 per cent of university graduates who had done a paid internship received at least one job offer, compared with 36 per cent of those with no internship experience.

But the survey also suggested that only interns who were paid had a decided advantage on the jobs market over graduates with no internship experience. Only 37 per cent of those who did an unpaid internship had job offers.

An internship must give young people the chance to learn practical skills that will impress potential employers. It should also help them network and, hopefully, get a job.

There is a strong need to counter the bad rap that internships have received lately, by adopting good practices such as not using unpaid interns to replace salaried workers, giving interns meaningful work assignments, and providing them with proper training and guidance.

“There are a number of good practices, for example, the International Labour Organization (ILO) does provide its interns with a stipend. This is in full recognition of the fact that quite often young people need to travel and establish themselves in a city or a country where they cannot get support from family or other networks,“ said Rosas.

For more information, please contact Hans von Rohland +4122/799-7916,