Home | Industry & Research | Gig-style internships are on the rise. Should we be concerned?

Gig-style internships are on the rise. Should we be concerned?

National newspaper The Australian does not have an internship program. Nonetheless, a few years ago, a young woman interned there, by virtue of the fact that she was a company bigwig’s daughter. This woman is now a prominent journalist at a different publication. This highlights just one pitfall of internships – unequal access to them. Other, potentially more serious barriers include people’s inability to work for free, and exploitation while on the (unpaid) job.

Yet, far from being regulated and curtailed, in many, varied industries, unpaid internships have become the norm. Australia’s only national study of internships, released in 2016, found that 58 per cent of Australians aged 18 to 29 had undertaken “at least one episode of UWE [unpaid work experience] in the last five years”. Twenty per cent had participated in at least five.

Per Fair Work Ombudsman guidelines, an intern should be paid depending on the length of the internship, and whether they are performing work that an employee would otherwise do. By this logic, I have done a number of internships that should have been paid – unsurprising, considering ‘Advertising, Media & Public Relations’ advertise the most internships.

One solution to this problem has been proffered by the likes of the University of Sydney, which invites employers on campus to offer students limited, useful work experience. Another, US-based one takes this concept a step further. Parker Dewey, taking inspiration from the gig economy, has applied this methodology to internships. Using Parker Dewey as the intermediary, companies offer paid tasks specifically to interns, who apply, and if successful, execute them. For example, a company can offer ‘data cleanup’, which requires the intern to “review, update, and correct database records”. In return, the company must pay the intern $200. Parker Dewey takes a 10 per cent commission from such transactions – from the intern’s pay.

Campus Review reached out to some of the companies that offer work experience at USYD to gather their thoughts on Parker Dewey’s proposition, which is currently only available in the US. PwC, the only one that responded, said engaging a firm like it wouldn’t be out of the question.

Parker Dewey uses the term ‘career launcher’ instead of ‘intern’, underscoring the supposed utility of its platform for interns. A testimonial by Microsoft on the Parker Dewey website noted that Microsoft staffers were so impressed with the career launcher they used, they offered her a summer internship, and ultimately hired her. This situation, however, is more exception than rule, says Professor Paula McDonald of QUT Business School. At least in Australia, “the statistical relation between work experience and employment outcomes is quite tenuous,” she said. 

So, could the micro-intern simply be a gig economy worker, re-framed? And if so, is it potentially exploitative? First, I went straight to the source – Parker Dewey – for answers to these questions. They somewhat skirted around them with the following:

I do think a Micro-Internship and Gig can be used synonymously, however we have a dedicated team at Parker Dewey that sees each project as it is posted and can (and have) removed companies who are not playing fairly. We require all Micro-Internships posted to our platform be paid and professional and when approached by a company wanting the work done at the lowest rate possible, we explain that this isn’t the right place for them.

They also auto-subscribed me to their e-newsletter, which contained a befuddling mix of messages. Alongside on-brand articles like ‘How To Use Micro-Internships To Hire The Top 10 Entry-Level Roles’, there was this:

Noel is a highly motivated college senior at Texas A&M University. Though he’s studying Chemical Engineering, Noel has completed Micro-Internship projects like sales outreach, lesson writing, copywriting, prospecting, and surveys. 

Post a project for Noel or thousands of other highly motivated Career Launchers like him on Parker Dewey.

Whether the company realised it or not, this post emphasises the potential dissonance between gig jobs and work integrated learning – the basis of internships.

For this and other reasons, McDonald, also a co-author of the Australian national internships study, is dubious about Parker Dewey, who “seem to have hopped onto the internship bandwagon”. She wonders whether they, per the definition of an internship, ensure that companies will provide interns with learning opportunities and adequate supervision. Without these, they’re “not true internships – and certainly not work integrated learning,” she advised.

“There seem to be a lot of opportunities for companies to take the ideas, productive labour, knowledge, and skills of so-called interns for a very cheap price. This points to it being gig work.”

Dr Sarah Kaine, an Associate Professor at UTS Business School, agrees. “Internships are meant to be work placements that provide real and valuable experience to students/new graduates – it is difficult to argue that this occurs with ‘micro’ jobs of only 5 hours (as suggested on Parker Dewey’s website),” she said.

That aside, McDonald is cautious about the possible lack of safeguards for interns. “There’s nothing in Parker Dewey’s FAQ section or other areas of their website on disputes. What if a company deems an intern’s work incomplete or unacceptable – do they then have the authority to withhold payment? What role does the platform have in resolving that dispute? And, does an intern have any claim to the benefits and protections that other employees have, for example, ones relating to health and safety? I assume the intern is completely on their own.”

Kaine, a gig economy specialist, added that she knows of students who’ve accepted gig jobs in the hope that they would lead to steady employment – to no avail. “The potential of this scenario to be exploitative is obvious,” she said. “…While Parker Dewey suggest that these gigs might lead to ongoing work – there is little incentive for organisations to create new positions if they can have their work done cheaply by an ever replenishing pool of graduates or soon to be graduates.”

Aside from possible intern exploitation, McDonald is concerned about what she sees as the bigger picture: gig workers (or, in Parker Dewey speak, ‘interns’) pushing down regular employees’ wages, and ultimately displacing them. By way of example, a prominent media company I interned at relied on a regular, rotating ‘intern workforce’ to support its day-to-day operations. Positions taken up by interns would have otherwise been filled by employees, or the company would have had to reduce its output. McDonald gave another example: she knows of urban planning students who worked part-time, and interned part-time at the same company, doing the same work whether they came in on a Wednesday as an intern or on a Thursday as an employee.

Regardless, the paid ‘internship’ is preferable to unpaid internships that can drag on for months, says McDonald. Kaine, meanwhile, sees the paid and structured internship as the gold standard. “[They] are a much better option for those trying to gain experience and also signal that an organisation is serious about treating its people well,” she said.

Universities, represented by their peak body Universities Australia, would not directly comment on gig-style internship offerings except to say that “real world work experience … helps students launch their careers”. It also pointed Campus Review to two Parker Dewey-style Australian companies: Ribit and Paddl. Perhaps it was wary of giving negative feedback as some of its members, like Deakin University and RMIT, use such services.

But, perhaps most importantly, what do students think of Parker Dewey’s scheme? Desiree Cai, 2019 National Union of Students President, has mixed feelings. She says more work experience options are a good thing, as there are often not enough to go around, and the paid element is enticing. Yet she is against such ‘micro internships’ replacing the macro versions. “They serve different purposes,” she said. “We need both.” 

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