I am showing my age here, by using the title of a Jimi Hendrix album as the heading for a post….
ExpertHR have published the results of some research, confirming something that most people already knew – namely that a large proportion of work experience placements for students and graduates are unpaid. There’s been quite a lot of discussion about this recently, particularly in relation to political internships. The children of the better off, so the argument goes, are well placed to benefit from these arrangements because they can afford the luxury of working for no money, whilst their indulgent parents (who have probably arranged the placement for them) subsidise their continuing education. Conversely, the less well off are penalised, because they cannot afford to work for nothing, and because they therefore miss out on valuable training and networking opportunities.
Because this blog is bought to you free of charge, courtesy of my boundless generosity, I’m inclined to feel some solidarity with those who work without payment but who would, in a better world, receive payment for their labours. However, having hosted many young people on work experience over the years, I feel obliged to act as Devil’s Advocate. Lots of employers are extremely generous in providing work experience. This often involves their employees in unproductive time, spent repeatedly teaching the same skills and routines to a succession of individuals, whilst running the risk that tasks will be performed ineffectively. There is both a direct and an opportunity cost to this and, although the employer benefits (eventually) from free labour, a potential supply of recruits and sometimes a positive contribution to their business, the process of offering unpaid placements is less exploitative than it might seem.
In companies that I have worked for, we’ve always taken the view that we will pay for travel and for a lunchtime meal for people on work experience, and this has always been appreciated (albeit possibly on the basis that half a loaf is better than none)! However, threatening noises are now being made about the National Minimum Wage applying in situations such as this, which will require the employers concerned to pay work experience students for their time.
Faced with a situation like this, and with the rather debatable advantages of offering placements at all, there is a danger that employers will back away from this whole area, thus delivering the kiss of death to a small but vital area of vocational training.
(You have to be a subscriber to access the survey on ExpertHR, but Personnel Today has a useful summary here).