Internships and Wealth Inequality

Internships have long been blamed as a means by which wealth remains concentrated amongst the upper classes. Most of the positions available at some of the UK’s largest and most prestigious firms to young people starting out on their careers are unpaid or come with a bare minimum of transport fees reimbursed. For young people looking to gain the vital experience necessary to secure a job, an additional source of income is needed to pay their cost of living during an internship which could last for several months. Firms expect an intern to be present during normal office hours which rules out most forms of employment and the long hours and demanding timetables frequently placed on interns also makes evening employment difficult. Generally interns rely on what has become known as ‘the bank of mum and dad’ meaning that only the children who have parents wealthy enough to pay their way can afford to take up an internship.

To a firm, having an internship is not only a desirable characteristic in a prospective new recruit but is increasingly become essential. In a government survey, one third of British firms said they would only hire a new recruit who already worked for them. The most obvious illustration of class perpetuation through internships is an annual Conservative Party fund raiser to which Mayfair based capital and equity firms donate internships which are then bid for by part donors, the proceeds going to the party. At this event, those who can afford to spend several thousand pounds to secure their child an internship at a top finical firm (as well as paying their children’s living cost during the internship itself) spend their money to guarantee one of their children will have a well-paid career.

The incentive for parents who can afford this for their children is clear. Not only is it a good way to give your child an advantage over the competition in beginning their corporate career but by ensuring your child has a well-paid position, parents are preparing for the retirement by providing their children with financial success. The net effect of the recruiters relying on internships to vet candidates at the beginning of their careers is the concentration of wealth amongst the privileged class. Only the wealthy can afford to furnish their children with the internships that are necessary to secure well-paid jobs.

Recently Nick Clegg and the coalition government have announced plans for major companies to offer more starting positions to people from less well-off backgrounds and to offer payment or living expenses to interns while they are working. Although this is noble in intent it fails tackle the root of the social inequity caused by the internship system. It is impressive that Nick Clegg has managed to convince so many large companies to agree to a scheme which offers firms little more than a PR boost, but by making the proposals opt-in rather than legally binding there is no incentive for most firms to alter their behaviour at all. An outright ban on internships would force firms to at least offer minimum wage to those gaining work experience which would go some way towards leveling the cost barriers to most young people taking up internships.

The plans are welcome news to those with an eye on becoming a senior corporate executive but hint at a fundamental flaw in the collation government’s approach the issue of wealth inequality; in that they expect private business to tackle the issue with government only very gently prodding the companies in the directing of socially conscious capitalism. Making internships more accessible to those who dream of vast corporate wealth is one thing but the issue at the heart of capitalism is the fact that regardless of how level you make the playing field, the majority of people will end up owning a small percentage of the wealth mean while a few people will own the majority. The question is what can be done about this and the answer the government suggests is ‘nothing’.

Reforming the internship mechanism may make it easier for those from poor backgrounds to get internships but will do almost nothing to tackle wealth inequity. It will also have a negligible effect on social mobility as there will remain a finite number of internships and even smaller number of people who reach the higher echelons of the corporate hierarchy. The people at the top of pyramid may vary slightly but this does nothing to comfort those at the base or those who question the virtues of a pyramid structure.

Hinting to large companies that they should be more socially aware will not solve the problems of a widening gap between the rich and the poor. Most of the coalition government’s austerity program is cutting the services that the poorest members of society depend upon. The government needs to do more to tackle wealth inequality rather than smoothing off the edges or implying that large firms should be readdressing the wealth balance themselves.