This article was originally published by Ann Arnold on ABC.net.au, from a ‘Best Practice’ ABC radio segment, on the 27th of June 2017. Click here to read the original and to hear the audio of the radio segment.
Unpaid internships are increasingly becoming the default way of beginning a professional career in Australia.
According to the largest survey so far, 60 per cent of people aged under 30 have done at least one, but when it comes to the status of interns, the law is unclear.
One of the distinctions between an employee and an intern, according to the Fair Work Ombudsman, is that if the work “would otherwise be done by an employee, or it’s work that the business or organisation has to do, it’s more likely the person is an employee”.
Up to half a million interns may have been in unlawful arrangements over the past five years, says Andrew Stewart, a professor of labour law at the University of Adelaide and co-author of the 2016 survey.
“We seem to be getting away from that idea about organisations investing in their workers and being prepared to put the time into paying them while they’re on the job,” he says.
“They say, ‘Well, if they’re not ready immediately to work for us then we’ll just make them an unpaid intern.'”
“I think that’s where organisations are taking a significant legal risk.”
Most interns reported high satisfaction with their experiences, but there’s no conclusive evidence that internships lead to employment outcomes. Many interns end up with jobs related to their placing, but they might have done so anyway.
Cedric Giordano, 24, engineering student
“This internship has shown me a lot about engineering and a lot of what happens in the back scenes: communication with clients, dealing with fee proposals, a lot of documentation and tendering.”
Cedric is a third-year student at the University of Technology Sydney, and as part of his course he is required to do a six-month internship. The first three months were unpaid, the second three paid.
It literally changed his life — the work convinced him to change his course.
“In my internship I’m involved with structural, hydraulic and civil engineers. I was doing civil engineering at university but because of my internship I’ve found a passion more in structural engineering.”
There is currently an oversupply of engineering students, which means there’s fierce competition for internships. Cedric says he had no contacts when he began the hunt for engineering companies via Google.
“I would have phoned probably between five and 15 companies a week. Then I took it up to myself to go around the city and physically go to these workplaces and ask around so I could see some faces and they could see me and see how I am.”
Eventually, he found success — a firm in North Sydney took him on.
On the paid versus unpaid question, Cedric sees merit in both.
“I think it should be unpaid at the start, because you’re there for the experience and you’re there to learn and you’re taking up a lot of time of the other engineers.”
“When you get to a certain stage like I am, after three months, you know a lot.”
Now Cedric is working a 45-hour week, and says he’s glad to be getting paid, albeit at a relatively low rate.
“It means I don’t have to dip into my savings to get lunch.”