Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Opinion: Allow more hours on unpaid internships while still being able to claim Jobseekers’ Allowance

  • 1 July 2020
  • By Ronel Lehmann

This blog was kindly contributed by Ronel Lehmann founder of Finito, which helps individuals find employment, drawing on their strengths and weaknesses and matching them with employers that suit them.

A few years ago, HMRC cracked down on ‘exploitative’ employers who were frowned on for using graduates as cheap labour by not paying them for internships. As a result, only a small proportion continued the practice. Fast forward to the bleak landscape of Covid–19 graduate employment. According to recent data from a survey conducted by the Institute of Student Employers, 40 per cent fewer paid internships and placements are likely to be available over the next year. We already know that 80 per cent of apprenticeships due to start in April 2020 did not do so.

Graduates face stiffer competition for fewer jobs and lower pay. As a result, many are already realising they need to prove their worth by coming up with ways of doing voluntary work. Those who spent the summer flicking through Netflix will lose out to the huge number of students who demonstrated they have initiative and resilience by signing up for the NHS volunteer scheme either calling lonely and vulnerable people or doing a range of chores for those self-isolating. Employers are going to be looking at what applicants did with their time – did they help with foodbanks or fruit-picking or just watch films? Did they put something back into society?

Graduates are having to use their initiative. One fashion graduate created the first website producing on a large-scale reversible fabric face-masks, which can be customised, in a huge range of fashionable fabrics. She asks for a donation to the NHS and has raised thousands of pounds for them. The website has caught the attention of staff at fashion house Amanda Wakeley and she is desperately hoping this may lead her towards a job.

Another music graduate cannot audition for orchestras but is getting thousands of hits on YouTube for her innovative versions of celebrated classical music favourites in a bid to woo prospective employers. Many graduates have no choice but to do work for free because the internships are not there but they will nevertheless be judged on how they used their time.

Start-ups are already proving to be a huge growth area. One enterprising business graduate spotted there is now a constant stream of cyclists along a popular country route and during the hot weather began offering bottles of water for sale, in line with social distance rules, and has broadened his offering to healthy snacks because the venture has proved so successful.

Some who planned a particular career route are changing their mind because they cannot get a job in their chosen field. One graduate who wanted to go into publishing has started writing articles for websites and newspapers and is managing to get them published as a freelance journalist. She may now go into journalism instead of publishing.

Young people do not have the experience of recessions and the bounce-back mentality. They are panicking and need advice. It is not all bad news – graduate entry schemes are holding up, although some accountancy firms are reviewing whether to postpone entry as they did in the 2008 financial crash. Graduates should not lose their nerve as there are still opportunities. Finito, a company which offers personal, tailored help to graduates finding it hard to land jobs, is having to do a lot of reassuring as there is a serious amount of worry but there are still openings. We are helping graduates fine tune their interview technique and applications as standing out has never been more important.

A recent announcement about some virtual internships is an interesting development. There is a collegiate approach brewing among employers to get through this pandemic and to encourage the employees of the future.

Recessions are different so different rules apply. Some employers just cannot afford anything else for now so in the short term we may see the return of some unpaid internships. Perhaps, as with many other aspects of legislation during this pandemic, rule changes might be needed to allow unpaid internships for more hours while still being able to claim Jobseekers’ Allowance. This might help graduates avoid gaps on their CVs.

Covid-19 is tearing up preconceptions and old ideas and practices. Graduates can see the world is changing and that they need to change their outlook. With businesses shut, staff furloughed and redundancies on a mass scale some may end up doing voluntary work. The world has turned on its head and graduates’ thinking needs to turn 180 degrees too.

As with all crises, those able to adapt and tailor their skills to the new work environment are the ones who will succeed.

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    Voluntary work is still work, even though not paid.
    Without the army of unpaid family carers for children and the disadvantaged we would be in double the mess.

    We need to think about what constitutes valuable work rather than paid work.

    Many furloughed workers would have been working in non essential retailing. Other than these workers, how many of us can say we have suffered from the absence of non essential retail.

    Could the workers in this sector be repurposed and re skilled to build more and better housing, provide more and better care for those that are unwell, more and better education for when schools reopen, more and better local roads and cycle tracks, more and better building insulation, more and better child care and elderly care.

    The market economy is failing fast. We need to rethink what work really needs doing to benefit society and then pay for it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *