It is very rare that I disagree strongly with India Lenon - the Telegraph Student blogger who makes incisive comments about education - but today is certainly one of those days.
In her latest post, Lenon jumps on the bandwagon of a movement that is popular in both Britain and in America - the movement to force companies to pay their interns. It has been discussed often in Britain, and it looks like something that Obama would try and force through into law in America if he has the chance (although it is now looking like no such chance will arise.)
The argument is that interns, especially in the current job market where gainful employment is sparse, often work ridiculous hours, doing the worst possible work, for little or no money. This is true. Therefore, the argument goes, employers should be forced to pay interns a decent (or "living" as the common drivel goes) wage in order to be compassionate and fair to the interns. This is false. Let me explain why.
Having recently been in a situation myself where I left University with few employment prospects, I can say with certainty that no-one, and I mean no-one, wants to be an intern if there is a full-time job available doing something in their field. Whether that be business or politics or fashion, we would all much rather be in full-time employment doing the thing we love. However, with the recession dragging on and on and on, there is no work available in the fields in which we studied. The student is therefore faced with two options:
a) Get full time work in low-level jobs at McDonalds etc
b) Apply for an internship paid or unpaid.
Many students reason for the second - the idea is that by working for less/no money, one can make contacts and gain experience that might open a door into the profession. So, if you are working as an intern for an MP for instance, you work for six months for an MP as an intern, another one notices you, likes the work you are doing and says "There is a job here in my department. Fancy it?"
Now, there are many paid internships as well, however these are few and far between, and as I found out, can have somewhere in the region of 350 applicants per position. Nice work if you can get it, but you probably can't. So, people subject themselves to unpaid internships hoping that that will do the trick, however difficult it may be.
People such as India are no doubt well-intentioned - the stories of unpaid interns being slogged to death are by no means pleasant stories, but instead of being compassionate, India's desired government interference would actually deny opportunities to students trying to make it in the jobs market, as it would mean less positions were available. It is not telling companies what to do - more it is telling students "You are not allowed to work for free." The government should not have the right to do that.
Unpaid internships aren't great, but when they are often the only prospect of an unemployed student being able to work in their desired field, we musn't deny them opportunities on the basis of some distorted notion of "compassion."