Concerns raised over “black market” for unpaid interns but employers want candidates with “common sense”

Small businesses should plan out intern programs and be careful the enthusiasm of young workers doesn’t put them in a tricky position down the line, say researchers, with recent studies suggesting the connection between unpaid work and future employment isn’t always clear.

The Australian reports recent research from academics at the University of Adelaide, University of Technology Sydney and Queensland University of Technology indicates that while more than half of young Australians are likely to have completed unpaid work, there’s not a large amount of clear evidence that this work led to future career prospects.

The work of University of Adelaide law professor John Stewart suggests only one third of interns canvassed in a recent survey were offered work at the end of their placements, reports The Australian.

Meanwhile, Dr Deanna Grant-Smith, a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology Business School, said because of the little work that had been done on collating the experiences of interns across the country, the local intern system could be likened to a “black market” for labour.

The structure of intern programs has been in the spotlight in recent weeks, with the Fair Work Ombudsman taking court action against businesses like Shark Tank contestant Her Fashion Box, which has been accused of operating unlawful internship arrangements.

However, there remains significant interest in unpaid work experience models across the country, and Jenny Lambert, director of employment, education and training at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, tells SmartCompany the issue comes down to educating businesses about the correct way to recruit interns.

We really do not promote or encourage businesses to even as much as advertise for an unpaid role,” Lambert says. 

Lambert says the Chamber’s priority is to stop businesses from creating positions that are essentially unpaid employee roles, and says while some operators continue to skate the limits of what are acceptable terms of engagement, many business owners are hungry for job candidates who have “common sense” — something that often comes from internships.

“I’d say that obviously employers want that common sense experience — and having enough experience to apply common sense,” she says.

“And I think initiative and productivity comes down to confidence.” 

While the business community is keen to find more workers that are familiar in workplace settings and ready to problem solve, QUT senior lecturer Dr Deanna Grant-Smith warns small businesses should be careful not to give work to interns that is actually better suited to paid employees.

“One thing small businesses are dealing with is having lots of people approaching them and offering to work for free. These people are approaching them and begging for it,” Grant-Smith says. 

In her work on the transition from education to employment, Grant-Smith’s research has involved interviews with many interns, and she says while many report positive experiences, some paint a more chaotic picture of their placements.

“Troublingly, I am hearing about some small businesses that operate in the consultancy type space where interns are doing work and somebody else’s name is being put on it. They are really doing productive work and not being paid for it,” she says. 

The Fair Work Ombudsman has marked unpaid work experience programs as an area of focus, and Grant-Smith says small businesses should make sure they have their bases covered on legal requirements by creating a detailed plan of any placements before they happen.

“It does take time to build a good internship program, and not everyone is a good manager,” she says.

“Ask, what does the student want out of this? And they definitely want an experience that will expose them to what the job will be like.”

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