83% of UK students who undertake work experience are unpaid.
For employers, hiring young people has a variety of benefits. They bring fresh perspectives, new energy, and will keenly complete mundane tasks at the drop of a hat. And they will ask for nothing more than a reference on their CV.
It might seem surprising that students would happily accept blank paychecks, especially at a time when the cost of living continues to rise. In 2023, 41% of students in the UK said that they pay too much for housing given its frequent poor condition, and financial struggles are common causes of depression and anxiety at university.
But the competition for jobs is at its highest. Every year, 96,000 students leave university without employment, despite their high levels of academic qualification. Young people aware of these alarming figures are becoming increasingly desperate for anything that will enhance their employability and put them just one step ahead.
Having work experience is encouraged throughout education, said to drastically help a young person’s chance of being employed after graduating.
Whilst attaining work experience in itself is difficult, those fortunate enough to get it are still unhappy that the work leaves their pockets empty.
Uma Philpott, a 21-year-old student from the University of York, undertook an unpaid work placement at a legal firm in July this year. “I was working a proper 9-5, in the office all day and doing real tasks, not just making teas and coffees like most people assume interns do. I was really lucky to get the placement, but it still felt like free labour,” she said.
Victor Santana, a 20-year-old from Newcastle, agreed. “It’s not like there’s much choice, really. It’s either being unemployed after uni or doing an unpaid job that any other adult would get paid for.”
Young people have little to no power to change this.
In most cases, it is completely legal in the UK for companies to hire workers for a period of time without giving them a payslip.
Gov.uk states: “Students required to do an internship for less than one year as part of a UK-based further or higher education course are not entitled to the National Minimum Wage.”
Whilst young people may strike and refuse free labour roles, the intimidating prospect of being unemployed after university prevents them from doing so.
“It’s a risk we can’t afford to take,” Miss Philpott said. “Opportunities are rare already, so turning down a job in the slight hope that a large company would change their minds isn’t realistic for us.”
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