Unpaid Internships
The issue of unpaid internships is a difficult and controversial subject. I have chosen to write this as an opinion piece rather than an official line and I don’t expect everyone will agree with all aspects of this blog and don’t expect you’ll get clear answers here too – (just getting my disclaimers in). However, I have sought and will refer to authoritative voices in the area that provide rigour, depth and legal understanding about this complex issue. There are some guiding principles from governing bodies such as BASES and at SC we’re lucky enough to have the wise words of leading employment lawyer Simon Bond provide further insight (see sign up page below) to help you understand the area.
Download Simon Bond’s overview of the legalities of unpaid internships
Unpaid internships are relatively common, but in recent years they have been met with so much vitriol on social media, regardless of the conditions, that some companies are avoiding making the adverts public (going underground might be a bit sensationalist – but definitely flying under the radar). On one hand some of the opportunities are well structured and motivated to help people progress while providing excellent working experience. However, some internships are clear and blatant attempts at acquiring cheap labour without any real skill or personal development. There is a grey area in the middle that you might find yourself in when weighing up whether to take an unpaid internship or not.
Let me start by sharing a few perspectives from the employer’s point of view;
“We can’t find skilled workers”
“So these graduates have got all the top qualifications but they can’t actually work with people?”
“So we’ve been through an interview process, we can’t find someone equipped to do the job, but we think some have potential so could we offer them a trainee position to see if they can learn the ropes?”
“When an appointment goes badly it can cost us £25 to 80k in people, administration and operational costs – we have got to do more to assess candidate effectiveness”
“Where are we going to find the money for internships we haven’t got anymore money for staff?”
These perspectives concentrate around the recruitment problem of;
a) lack of skilled workers
b) growing standards and expectations for effectiveness in the role
c) the need to fully assess someone before committing longer-term i.e. try before you buy.
The employer is stuck trying to find staff and needs to deploy resource and effort to provide supervisory and training support to an internship roles to create the next generation of staff. This is an example of where internships come from a good place, but companies are constrained into considering such unpaid positions.
If on the other hand the conversation tends towards;
“Performance science? What does it cost? How much can we get away with paying? Sounds like a lot of money – can we get a lackey to do it for nothing?”
In this situation you probably have a management team that are ignorant of the impact quality staff can have and are ticking a metaphorical or literal box by putting someone in place to be seen to be doing something in the area. Football clubs are particularly culpable at creating cheap and nasty unpaid opportunities! Talking to many staff in such clubs my hunch is that they have ‘requirements’ to staff certain services, but they don’t understand the area enough to make informed decisions and therefore create the case for an appropriate budget. There is no excuse for this, the leaders need to brush-up to understand what performance services can offer to the bottom line of keeping players fit, progressing and delivering their best performance.
Pay for rubbish and you will likely get rubbish. But you will probably get someone. So this leads me onto those that do apply for such opportunities. Someone, somewhere will apply and get the role. Loathe it all you like such an opportunity will provide that person with an advantage in this dog-eat-dog world. There might be changes afoot to the legal requirements for companies to provide worker rights but for now this is being exploited by many in sport but is also serving many professionals well, to get the leg up they need.
The simple reality of unpaid opportunities is that experience is the fuel to getting a career up and running, so volunteering is essential, particularly when you are not skilled to do a job. I am sure you can all think of many a coach that has volunteered at some point in their career, or a physiotherapist or a doctor who has treated someone beyond their schedule, or a project manager that has put in a serious shift to get the job done well. In fact, 9 to 5 working is pretty alien to the sporting world*, so don’t start expecting it to change now! Personally, I did a load of volunteering and am convinced it helped me acquire the skills, anecdotes and insights that positioned me well at interviews. If I was to go back in time, I would probably do more unpaid volunteer work to ramp up my real-life learning earlier.
For those that chose to spurn these opportunities the motivations are often noble and admirable, such as; placing a clear value on their worth; rejecting unstable and uncommitted prospects. The advantage is in creating higher expectations for yourself, which is a working philosophy that will stand you in good stead as you progress. Sometimes the opportunity is NOT taking a role. The loss relates to the fact that an employer is far, far more likely to plump for you for a permanent role if they already know that you can do the job and they can trust you.
As you move into the job market whether you are searching advertised roles or contacting companies that fit your ambitions – you may well find an unpaid role that lures your attention. Here are some key questions to consider further if you see one;
Does the opportunity offer?
  • Flexible hours
  • Formal supervision and mentoring
  • A prospect for a permanent role
  • Clarity of role expectations
If not be careful. If in doubt, my top tip would be to phone them up and judge the motivations from what you hear about the opportunity.
Keen to read more, then read Simon Bond’s lowdown on the legals.
And take a look at the BASES position stand.
*Or most other professions, nowadays, just get on a train or the motorways at 5:30am on a Monday morning – these people are putting in a shift or two to make a living!

About steveingham

Dr Steve Ingham is one of the UK’s leading figures in sport and one of the world’s leading performance scientists. He is steeped in high performance and has been integral to the development of Britain into an Olympic superpower. He has provided support to over 1000 athletes, of which over 200 have achieved World or Olympic medal success, including some of the world’s greatest athletes such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent. Steve has coached Kelly Sotherton's running for heptathlon and to 4x400m Olympic medal winning success. Steve has worked at the English Sports Council British Olympic Association, English Institute of Sport, where Steve was the Director of Science and Technical Development, leading a team of 200 scientists in support of Team GB and Paralympics GB. Ingham holds a BSc, PhD and is a Fellow of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences. Steve is author of the best selling ‘How to Support a Champion: The art of applying science to the elite athlete’, discussing and inspiring the importance of learning and adapting to reach our maximum potential. Steve established Supporting Champions with the ambition of helping ambitious people to find a better way of creating high-performance. Steve hosts the Supporting Champions Podcast on sharing his pursuit of understanding and exploration in performance.

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