Unpaid internships have been around for a long time and have been a matter of contention for students and recent graduates around the world. Is this a case of modern slavery or a great springboard for young people to find their way into the workforce?
While some might think unpaid internships are unfair, they do exist in Singapore and are completely legal. But why are companies offering them in the first place?
In today’s competitive job market, employees are starting to find that getting good grades in school is not the definitive way to get the job of their dreams. Likewise, employers reported a “skills gap” among graduates.
According to a 2017 survey by Glints, 78% of 1,000 respondents “actively sought out opportunities outside of school, to participate in industry competitions or work placement opportunities that they believe , will help them acquire skills for their future employment ”.
These factors have driven up demand for internship positions, which may also lead to lower wages offered.
Some companies may think that the learning opportunities resulting from their collaboration are significant enough to compensate for a fair salary. Others may be seriously strapped for cash and need all the help they can get (especially during the Covid-19 pandemic).
What do Singaporeans think?
Singaporeans across various industries have started to feel the wrath of the Covid-19 pandemic on their rice bowls, with job cuts and layoffs being regularly announced.
Businesses in the tourism sector have been hit the hardest, and companies like Resorts World Sentosa and Airbnb have announced large-scale workforce cuts. Multinationals and unicorns like HSBC and Linkedin are not spared, and both laid off workers last week.
Hiring sentiment is also at its lowest since 2009, with just 11 percent of Singaporean employers (out of 266 surveyed) planning to hire. Meanwhile, 38% of them plan to let staff go.
Whether it’s full-time positions or internships to improve future employability, Singaporeans crave jobs. What about unpaid internships – how willing are Singaporeans to accept them?
We spoke to young Singaporeans between the ages of 20 and 30 to find out their opinions.
Learning and passion triumph… for now
A common theme that touched the 21 people who said they would take an unpaid internship was their desire to gain knowledge and experience in an industry they were passionate about.
I enjoy the experience, especially if it’s something that I really want to pursue, more than the money. In addition, internships are a springboard, so I do not see them as a job but rather as a learning experience.
Nina Ye, 23, graduate student
Jason Poh, 27, had also previously done an unpaid internship during his undergraduate studies and said he decided to do so for various reasons. These included the fact that the company belonged to an industry he wanted to enter in the future and that the role was aligned with his “interests and beliefs”.
“I was barely three months after graduation, so my priority was to put myself in the best possible position to be hired. The salary would have been secondary. At that time, I was looking for a job while adding to my portfolio with the unpaid internship, ”said the psychology graduate.
The impact of Covid-19
The pandemic and job prospects also played a role in some interviewees’ decision to take an unpaid internship.
Alicia Aw, an undergraduate economics student, had attempted to seek a paid internship during her college summer vacation. However, she did not receive a response and decided to settle for an unpaid internship instead.
Despite the fact that the job was unpaid, she did not feel shorted out as the role was in her “area of interest” and she could “accumulate experience” to give her an edge when she did. was applying for other internships or jobs in the future. She also accepted a part-time job on weekends to help with her expenses.
Meanwhile, altruistic motives played a role in Phillip Tan’s decision to take an unpaid internship during this Covid-19 period. The 23-year-old works in an Internet of Things (IOT) startup that plays on tracking workers inside workplaces.
In addition to being interested in the field, the undergraduate electrical engineering student also wanted to play a role in protecting the well-being of foreign workers in Singapore, who had been heavily affected by Covid-19.
Ethics above all
Respondents who were against unpaid internships felt that not receiving a paycheck would make interns feel underestimated and exploited.
Jack Chan, 23, joked that he would consider why companies offer unpaid internships – because he feels it reflects the values of the company.
Some companies hire interns for free because they have excessive pride in being prestigious. There is no doubt that some can offer impactful learning opportunities, but it is the pride behind it that I think keeps me away from unpaid work.
Jack Chan, 23, undergraduate
However, respondents also acknowledged that some companies are strapped for cash due to the Covid-19 situation and not paying interns would then be more understandable.
Ultimately I would say that if the company has huge resources, there should be some form of compensation or payment, as it reflects the company’s workforce values.
Phillip Tan, 23, undergraduate in electrical engineering
Many have also correctly pointed out that accepting an unpaid internship is a privilege some cannot afford, especially during the global recession.
Daren Khek and Darryl Wong, both 23, felt that no matter how “good” the business was, they would still need money for daily needs and therefore an allowance would be a condition of basis for them when looking for an internship.
However, when asked if he would do an unpaid internship at a company he really wanted to work with, Darryl concluded that he would “probably” accept it if he had the potential to be converted into a full time employee.
On the other hand, Daren mentioned that he was “extremely frugal” and argued that there had to be at least some allowance for meals. If the company offered free lunches, then that would be a bonus.
A new era of work
Covid-19 arguably heralded the new standard of work: remote and freelance work is likely to last a long time.
Employers are also increasingly focusing on the work experience of their new employees. A tighter labor market also means that employers have influence over job seekers or internships.
Students and young people themselves also believe that they need real work experience to be competitive in the job market.
Therefore, as long as the supply of unpaid interns is satisfied, the phenomenon of unpaid internships is likely to continue.
Featured Image Credit: HR Asia
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