Work experience has become a prerequisite for those students and young graduates who want to launch a successful career. Entry job positions seek for some prior work experience: either volunteer or through an internship. Most students, before they even go into job hunting, will start looking for internships in the sector that they want to kick start their prospective careers. But is this beneficial? Klaudjo Kavaja investigates.
I decided to write this piece after hearing about the recent decision of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to start offering paid internships following a successful campaign by one of its former interns, Ashton Barnett-Vanes, a number of months ago. WHO have now become one of the major UN agencies that pay their interns, but not all agencies have the required budget to pay the hundreds or thousands of interns they receive every year. Some time ago I interned for UNESCO in Paris. I still have fond memories of that experience and the time spent both in the office and the city. Yet, without my studies’ scholarship I would not have been able to do that internship due to the high costs of living.
One of the main problems with unpaid internships in international organisations is that they tend to be exclusive, with interns coming from well-to-do backgrounds and high-income countries. Interns coming from the developing countries are underrepresented, although the majority of world population lives in those countries. This imbalance in opportunities goes against the whole spirit of such organisations who aim for a more equitable global world and tackle underdevelopment challenges. Lower socioeconomic status (SES) students need to look for a scholarship from their own governments, their study programmes, or a foundation, in order to cover the living costs of their internship.
Low income, high living costs
In some cases where remuneration is offered for an internship position, the amount is not suitable for covering the living costs. This partial payment, amounting to some hundred euro, cannot cover the costs of accommodation, food, transport, pocket money, and sometimes relocation costs. The headquarters and main offices of international institutions are based in expensive cities like New York, Geneva and Brussels, putting an additional strain on students’ or young graduates’ budget.
The internship needs to consist of genuine learning experience for youth, giving them an opportunity for personal growth and for putting their theoretical knowledge into practice. It should not be relegated into an experience where the intern feels useless, or that he/she is not learning or growing within the organisation. For the internship to be fair, the tasks that the intern is assign with need to contain more than printing or making photocopies of documents, or proofreading of various texts. This can be detrimental to the passion of students to follow a specific career path.
As for EU Institutions, they offer traineeships that remunerate their prospective trainees accordingly. In a landmark decision this July the EU decided to remunerate the interns serving under an MEP. In similar fashion, last year also the EEAS took steps to remunerate its interns serving in the various EU Delegations accordingly. Similar initiatives to crack down on unpaid internships should be undertaken in every member state of the Union, so that youth are not treated as cheap or inexpensive labour and that employers stop taking advantage of their need for professional experience.