Internships and ‘who you know’; not just the preserve of the professions

Figures released this month revealed there are 979,000 16 to 24-year-olds not in education, employment or training (NEETs) in the second quarter of this year, up by 107,000 in just 12 months. Although it is important to also note this statistic does hide an unknown number of young people who are not claiming unemployment benefits, often described as “living off the bank of mum and dad”. The situation is worst in the North West of England, where I sit and write this blog, here one in four 19 to 24-year-olds – or 141,000 young men and women – are classified as NEETs.

As chance would have it, I was conveniently staying with a NEET, my sister. Taking my chance to interview a member of the ‘jilted generation’, a victim of neglectful government policy, priced out of education, denied the apprenticeships and with no job out there for her. Let me introduce Lucy, she’s 19 and from Barrow-in-Furness.

Usually conversations with teenagers can be somewhat mono-syllabic and Lucy can often be no exception, for example; me: “What are you doing today?” Lucy: “Sitting here in my dressing gown”, me: “And later?” Lucy: “I don’t know”, me: “Are you bored?” Lucy: “A bit”.

To ease the boredom we had a chat about her perception of NEETs, which raised a few thoughts which were new to me. Lucy has a supportive family who have helped her find vacancies, advised on applications and she has taken the initiative and handed out her CVs all around town but she hasn’t heard back from anywhere, despite her shop floor experience at a national supermarket chain. She didn’t seem very surprised at the lack of success as she had seen first-hand how her previous manger had binned all CVs handed in at the supermarket she worked in. She explained that the manager would only employ friends or relatives of staff currently working there. It is a sign of the times and competition for all jobs that the accusation “it’s who you know, not what you know” applies for getting a job in a supermarket as much as it applies to journalism, working in politics or the law. When jobs are few and far between the competition increases and the recruiters look out for friends and family before offering opportunities to strangers.


Out of Lucy’s many friends she has just one who has an apprenticeship, she works as a receptionist at a local hotel and she is also 19 years old. “She was really lucky, loads of people applied for them but she was the only one who got one… she was really lucky.” It’s clear that the 360,000 apprenticeships funded by the government are not enough when so many young people are out of work. It is positive to see Labour’s commitment that any company looking to win work from the public sector should have an apprentice scheme in place first.

Lucy did look at apprenticeships at Connexions but she said “they were for lads, stuff like fitters and joiners, not for stuff like office jobs”, this may be a reflection of our home town’s industrial economy around the ship yard. However a TUC report from 2010 found that the expansion of apprenticeships has failed to break the traditional patterns of gender segregation at work, and this is reflected in the gender pay gap for apprentices. The concentration of women in low-paid areas means that the gender pay gap for apprentices is greater than that in the wider labour market, with female apprentices earning, on average, 21% less than male apprentices. Even within the same sector, however, women are paid less than men, so occupational segregation is not the only cause of the gender pay gap. In retail, female apprentices are paid 16% less than male apprentices.

Why are the best paid apprenticeships in construction and engineering seen as been for boys rather than girls? Do we need to do more in schools to encourage young women to look at traditionally ‘male jobs’ as options? Or do we need to value women’s work around caring and childcare more? I hope that these questions will be addressed by Ed Miliband and his team as they develop their policies for young people.


Lucy talked about another 19 year old friend who has been a ‘NEET’ for 10 months now after dropping out of his Literature course at the University of Cumbria; she explained “he dropped out of uni because it was full of chavs. He did a 2 week unpaid placement at PoundLand but didn’t get a job after that”. This struck me as a familiar story, internships is a term more usually associated with the professions which creates opportunities from those able to afford them. Access to internships is unequal and unfair. By refusing to pay interns a wage, many people are being excluded from accessing the opportunities which would allow them to get the jobs they deserve. In recent months there has been no clearer example than that of the Conservative Party fundraising auction in February which included five internships in the City; it sure helps get your foot on the ladder when Daddy pays thousands of pounds so you can work for free! Whilst this is an example of one extreme we must remember the young people working for free in high street shops hoping that one day they may get a job, and that job is not going to make them a fortune. The epidemic of internships at both ends of the employment spectrum shows the desperation young people, NEETS, are to get work and earn their own way. The Government has let them down, since coming to power they have slashed the Future Jobs Fund, cut local government which has seen youth services closing and then priced them out of higher education. Young people, like Lucy, are being punished by the government who do so in order to bail out their banker friends.

Ed Miliband and Labour were right to champion young people and stand up for them against the cuts, they are right to oppose the £9000 tuition fees in England and they now are offering ideas for expanding apprenticeships in industry. Looking to the future it is clear that labour are on the right path for young people and what Ed Miliband needs now is a generation to get behind him and support him to a Labour victory in 2015 before we lose a generation to the implications of long-term unemployment.