The Companies Charging Thousands to Set You Up with an Unpaid Internship

Paying a fee to work for free sounds like something out of some satirical hellscape, but it is very much a reality.

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Sep 12 2016, 11:00pm

A landing page on City Internship's website

Doing an internship can be a useful thing. Apply for a job and you're much more likely to get an interview based on your experience than your qualifications – which is a fantastic realisation to come to when you've just spent £27,000 for your 2:2 in Public Relations. Even so, it's worth asking how it's got to the point that companies offering internships abroad for anywhere from £1,500 to over £30,000 not only exist, but receive thousands of applications a year.

Don't have the time to send off a few speculative emails asking for a position? Worry not: a range of sites are offering to take all the stress out of the equation. With packages starting from just a meagre couple of grand, you can experience the glamour of the intern lifestyle without any of the hassle of sorting out the logistics. All you need to do is apply, go for an interview, pay them a load of money if you make it through the interview, then fly off to wherever to shadow an auditor for a month-and-a-half.

The Intern Group – one of the companies that arranges these packages – offers programmes from London to Hong Kong and New York to Shanghai, with a standard six-week stint in the British capital setting you back £3,595, or a six-week summer package in Hong Kong costing a perfectly reasonable £33,553. Other companies with similarly dystopian names – Dream Careers, Global Experiences and City Internships – all offer similar schemes, in similarly international locations.

With each one of these services, you pay a fee to work for free. Employment isn't guaranteed at the end of your internship, but City Internships say that 65 percent of their graduates get hired straight out of the programme – so, you know, there's that.

But other than the privilege of working for no remuneration in a foreign country, what do you actually get in exchange for your parents' hard-earned cash? First off: accommodation once you touch down in your chosen "international city", along with a few things of varying usefulness, like a SIM card, map, welcome pack and a few touristy activities to enjoy in your spare time (a trip to Macau, say, or a group dinner in Paris). That said, all of this varies from place to place, and accommodation isn't always included; some companies provide housing as an "optional package". You'll also be expected to stump for flights, visa fees and any expenses while you're there.

The fee will be split differently by each company, but according to a breakdown on City Internships 15 percent of what you pay them goes towards brokering the internship, while another 15 percent is to cover the costs of "infrastructure and technology", a further 25 percent is for seminars and social events, and the remaining 45 percent for accommodation.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the whole process is that the details of exactly where you'll be working and what work you'll be doing aren't confirmed until after you've parted with a good chunk of your cash. Mind you, all of these companies guarantee they'll place you in the city and industry you select, and judging by the reviews most people do come away from the experience having gained a lot.

But that doesn't necessarily mean these schemes are inherently a good thing. Beyond the obvious – they give children of the wealthy yet another leg-up above everyone else – they serve to bolster a culture of working for free, something young people really should be thinking critically about, not actively engaging in. If you work for free, you're doing yourself over and you're undercutting everyone else. Only, in this case, you're actually paying to work, so who knows how badly you might be screwing the rest of us over.

The companies themselves aren't the only ones validating this culture; universities are, too. The schemes are at their biggest in the US – the majority are based there – but the UK is starting to catch on.

The London School of Economics has teamed up with The Intern Group to offer their students the chance to go on a programme for the altogether more reasonable price of £590, while University of Essex students can benefit from a more modest 10 percent discount. These official partnerships involve either awarding credit points to students taking up internships or offering them as an extra-curricular activity. Really, though, it's not the minutiae of the agreements that are important – rather the fact that they exist at all. Most companies justify a lack of remuneration for their interns by pointing to visa specifications in host countries, which is understandable in individual cases – but when institutions start legitimising the practice en masse it becomes a little problematic.

It's easy to judge, though, isn't it? I've spent more time on the glossy, AirBnB-style sites that offer these schemes than I'd care to admit. Because if you can get over your millennial guilt, and somehow raise thousands of pounds to fund the trip, the prospect of living and working in LA for a few months is clearly an appealing one. Perhaps I was being overly cynical about the whole thing – perhaps, with university fees going stratospheric, this is actually a slightly more affordable way to get on the career ladder? But then, without any qualifications, would you even be able to make it past the interview stage? To find out more, I got in touch with someone who actually knew what they were talking about.

Alice Walker* not only did an internship abroad programme, but went on to work for Global Experiences, so seemed like the perfect person to clear a few things up. "I completed a three-month internship through Global Experiences over the summer of 2010 in Dublin," she said. "The experience, overall, was positive. I met a lot of other fantastic people and absolutely loved Ireland. There were a few things that left a bitter taste in my mouth, like how much money the programme cost, the housing being outside of Dublin and the lack of organised events."

I asked her if the popularity of these schemes might have something to do with people seeking a practical alternative to prohibitively expensive higher education, but she dismissed the idea. "It's seen as a supplement to university, not an alternative," she said. "Most employers wouldn't hire an intern that was not currently in university or recently graduated from university. The need for an internship is pushed pretty hard in college in the US, and many students have a desire to study abroad. An international internship kills two birds with one stone."

When I broached the subject of the cost of these programmes, and the profile of the average person who can afford to go on them, Alice admitted there were problems, but insisted that the vast majority of participants felt their experience was hugely beneficial.

"When I was working at Global Experiences, it seemed the largest demographic purchasing the programme were white females from the United States, between 20 to 23 years old," she said. "The prices don't include flights, transportation on the ground, meals or visa costs, and for those coming into the US that can cost up to another $1,000 (£750). I personally had to dig deep into my savings and I can still feel the effects of it. There are always some complaints that happen on every programme, but I think all in all the interns have a positive experience."

Again, while it's nice that people who get to go on these internship trips seem to have a lovely time, it's hard to look upon them as a positive thing. For-profit companies charging young people to work for free sounds like something out of a satirical hellscape, not reality. As Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, points out: "Expensive overseas internships are yet another way that the internship economy reinforces privilege."

Still – they're there now, and whatever you think of them, it doesn't look like they're going away any time soon.

*Name has been changed

@JackHarry

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