Financially-disadvantaged students are the real losers of unpaid internship culture

June 20, 2017
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We all know how hard it is to financially get by as a uni student. Between the rising cost of living prices, little free time to pick up extra shifts and those ridiculously expensive textbooks that get used once a semester, the image of the povo AF student isn’t so ridiculous.

But when you factor in all these costs with the increasing pressure to undertake an unpaid internship (or four) by the time you graduate just in the hopes of securing that shiny grad job we’re all chasing, things get a lot more complicated.

For low-socioeconomic status students, undertaking an unpaid internship is just not possible. Any free time they do have has to be spent earning enough money just to survive the next week. But if undertaking an unpaid internship is essential to securing a successful future, where does that leave low-SES students?

According to a 2016 report from the Commonwealth Department of Employment, the prospects for low-SES students post-graduation are not looking good without an internship under their belt.

Low-SES students suffer most from unpaid internship culture

The results from a survey conducted as part of the report found that many young people undertaking unpaid internships viewed them as a modern form of slave labour. We’ve all experienced the promise of gaining “exposure” in lieu of payment, especially for those of us pursuing a career in the creative industries, but low-SES students simply can’t spare the time without some form of monetary compensation.

Exposure can’t put food on the table, after all. Many of the survey respondents cited experiencing hardships in order to undertake the internship in the first place, including being forced to rely on financial support from family and friends, moving into a cheaper place to live for the duration of the internship and having to negotiate a more flexible timetable with their manager at their part-time job.

And this is all without the promise of securing a paying job once the internship period is over.

We’ve all experienced the promise of gaining 'exposure' in lieu of payment... but low-SES students simply can’t spare the time without some form of monetary compensation.

Despite the faults, students still report satisfaction with the skills learnt during the experience

While the downsides of Australia’s unpaid internship culture are obvious and numerous, many students are still reporting satisfaction with the things they learned as part of the experience. Having the opportunity to solidify classroom skills in the workplace, build a professional network, grow your resume and ensure that your chosen field of study is where you want to work at the end of the road are just a few of the named benefits.

With nearly one in five survey participants having undertaken five or more unpaid internships in the past five years, it makes sense that more and more grad employers are expecting those hallowed entries on your CV before even considering you for a job.

In other words, no unpaid internship experience = no chance of getting a grad job, which leaves low-SES students in a very bad position for post-uni career growth.

With nearly one in five survey participants having undertaken five or more unpaid internships in the past five years, it makes sense that more and more grad employers are expecting those hallowed entries on your CV before even considering you for a job.

Almost half of all underpaid internships are undertaken as part of a formal course of study

OK, this one’s a biggie, guys. The survey found that around half of all unpaid internships occur in connection with a formal course of study. That means that not only is the corporate world denying young Australians the chance to make a decent wage AND gain professional work experience, but unis are perpetuating the problem by making unpaid internships mandatory.

In some cases, especially in professional-focused fields of study like journalism and business, they are even required just to graduate. With students from low-SES backgrounds far less likely to undertake an unpaid internship than their higher-SES peers, Australia’s focus on unpaid internship culture could be costing these students their degrees.

All around, unpaid internship culture is a big pile of suck for those of us struggling just to get through the semester. After all, who wants to spend time doing something for free without any recognition when you could be earning that glorious dosh? But maybe the next time you’re sitting at your internship, fighting off a serious case of Monday-blues, you should spare a thought for those who aren’t lucky enough to be in your position and what that means for their future.

Shannon Coward

Shannon Coward is a fourth year Bachelor of Journalism and Bachelor of Arts student at the University of Queensland. She enjoys period dramas, doughnuts and a good nap.

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