Youth and internships: Why it is now time to move away from them

By Frida Hoffmann at YEC17

During the negotiations at the Labour Affairs Council of the Young European Council 2017, the issue of unpaid internships surfaced and became one of the leading motives of the Council.

We are in the age when sacrificing time to have valuable experience is the only way to get a well-paid job. I know it, you know it and the delegates know it. One negotiation after the other the participants gradually got into a sequence of heated debates on alternative solutions and possible outcomes. The working groups presented a Framework Agreement that defines trainees and interns as two separate entities both entitled of  “monetary salary or in kind”.

The problem is, as flagged by Max Uebe (who is the Head of Unit “Employment Strategy” in the European Commission’s Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion) that these issues have to first be resolved on the domestic level of each member state.

The European Union has no power to enact binding legislation based on Article 153(5) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Any regulation regarding pay is strictly in the realm of the member states. Consequently, only non-binding forms of EU action is available that enables the needed cooperation and communication. However, this still does not place enough pressure on the Member State, but only removes the latter from the Commission. An empty promise that never will be implemented? Yes, most probably.

If the EU has no competence over what Member States are doing, they could at least address this by paying their interns. As it happens, an estimated half of the current EU internships are full-time and unpaid.

After witnessing the different proposals and their barriers, I came to the conclusion that the best solution would be to abolish internships once and for all. The whole phenomenon of internships is faulty and full of errors. The EU will not legislate on it because it cannot. The Member States have more pressing issues and they are under no legal obligation from the EU and employers are generally glad to have unpaid workforce. The real problem is that ensuring that internships are paid positions would not even solve the situation. While paid internships look wonderful from the intern’s point of view, it would be a major financial setback for the employer, and would eventually result in no internships at all. Something that would definitely not look promising for those student, who would like to try themselves in the professional environment.

Instead of having lengthy internships, a shorter (maximum 2 weeks) unpaid, but more intense “work experience” might be a solution. This would provide an opportunity for students to get insights on specific fields, and still be eligible to apply for a job that actually pays during the holiday season.

 My personal experience is that a week-long unpaid internship is not as burdensome financially as running on no salary for 3 months and living up non-existing savings from my student loan.

One would argue that the concept of a short “work experience” would not guarantee the opportunity to learn. On that point, I strongly believe that the goal of a work experience is not to gain extensive knowledge about a job position. It is for the students to gain an insight,  and decide whether they would like to get more involved and apply for a graduate role or not. Work experience is quite frankly for experience that can be manifested in a variety of ways. This would require more effort from the employer to shift the focus from coffee making activities to more exciting tasks, that focus on personal development and learning new skills in an alternative way.

The problem of unpaid internships and the painful fact that these positions are only open for students with very stable financial background is more extensive and complex than most of us think. Like every single EU employment topic, it is in fact just as fragile and specific as unemployment, working condition or social security for every Member State. Getting to the end of it would surely require bold and clear actions. Can we really expect it to be happening in the near future though?

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