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Internships and other work experiences
Internships and other work experiences

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1.1 What to expect from my employer

In the UK, work experience should usually be paid. However, there are exceptions to that rule. In Activity 1 you’ll identify the different situations when it is and isn’t a requirement for an employer to pay an intern.

Activity 1 When is an unpaid internship legal?

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes for this activity

Use your preferred search engine to research unpaid internships. When are they acceptable and when are they legal?

Summarise your findings in the box below.

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Here is a useful explanation of the UK Government’s rules on employment rights and pay for interns (TARGETJobs, no date):

By law, employers have to pay their interns the national minimum wage if:

  • the intern counts as a ‘worker’ (things that make you a worker include having a contract – written or verbal – and being required to turn up even if you don’t want to)
  • the intern is promised a work contract in future.

By law, employers do not have to pay their interns the national minimum wage if:

  • the intern is required to do an internship (lasting less than a year) as part of a UK-based higher education course
  • the intern is working for a registered charity or voluntary organisation and is receiving limited expenses, such as for food and travel (but if they receive any money that can’t be regarded as a reimbursement of expenses, this counts as payment and they should therefore be paid the national minimum wage)
  • the intern is work-shadowing – i.e. they are observing an employee and not carrying out any work themselves.

Despite these rules, many unpaid opportunities are still available, particularly in industries such as retail, the arts and media. This is a controversial issue and Government legislation is progressing slowly, so you will need to decide for yourself whether to accept unpaid work. If you can afford to do it, the hours and expectations are acceptable and not exploitative, and it will give you a definite advantage when applying for jobs in the future, you might decide it is worthwhile.

Many higher education institutions take a position on advertising unpaid work. For example, the Open University Careers and Employability Service states:

All unpaid opportunities are reviewed on a case by case basis. The Careers and Employability Service reserve the right to refuse the promotion of unpaid opportunities which are:

  • promoted by anyone other than registered charities or voluntary groups
  • vacancies which would normally be filled by a permanent or temporary paid member of staff (e.g. data input, telesales, administrative work, filing, market research)
  • ongoing opportunities with fixed hours (e.g. 20 hours a week for 3 months or longer); or
  • require students to make any form of payment.

Worksmart (no date) outlines some of the other things you can expect from a good work experience opportunity, including:

  • the chance to learn valuable work skills and gain useful experience. Don’t be fobbed off with general duties. Talk to your manager about opportunities to develop genuine vocational skills. Is there a specific project you can own or be given a dedicated role in? A good employer would also allow and even encourage you to take advantage of any in-house training courses available. 
  • sensible working hours. Certain sectors, such as media, fashion or finance, have a reputation for working staff long and hard, leading to stress and burn-out. If you’re keen to impress, it’s very tempting to work excessively long hours, but it’s a dangerous habit to get into and not a good way to get ahead in the long run. Depending on your employment status, it’s very likely you have legal protection against overwork.
  • to be treated with the same respect as any other member of staff.
  • a reference upon completion of the internship.

You can also expect someone to report to/receive feedback from.

Next you’ll have a look at what your employer will expect from you in return.