Marco is SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central
Amongst the pronouncements of the department for stating the bleedin’ obvious must rank Alan Milburn’s observation two years ago in the Fair Access to the Professions report that you were more likely to take an unpaid internship if you could afford work for free. As a 2005 graduate myself, time and time again I saw friends and classmates have their hopes of careers in the higher demand industries and professions founder on the financial impossibilities. After I cut my postgraduate studies unexpectedly short I found myself in a situation not a million miles from it too.
Milburn’s report highlighted in particular the private sector, where some unscrupulous managers saw unpaid interns not as a way of providing learning and training opportunities but as a way of getting work done on the cheap. The Milburn report highlighted the media in particular, where half of all new journalist NUJ members surveyed had had to work for free before finding paid employment.
Somewhat surprisingly, politics, for all its low regard as a profession, has also become high demand. I blame the West Wing. Also surprisingly – from my perspective – is that I am now in a position to take on interns myself as an MSP. I don’t have profit-margins and shareholders demanding that I cut costs, I just have a staffing budget fixed by officials. It’s a budget that struggles to provide enough support just to meet the expectations placed upon me as a constituency MSP. Yet applications have already come in from people who want to volunteer in the office.
Most parliamentarians from most parties would simply jump at the chance. Instead I’ve wanted to consider from the outset the fairness of the situation. I know all too well how volunteering in an MSP’s office can be seen by future employers and I do not want to contribute to a problem I myself found so jarring.
I could simply refuse to bring any volunteers in. That wouldn’t help anyone, and would close the door even more than if just took on those who can afford to work for free. By offering all volunteering opportunities on a part-time basis I can at least push the door to my office ajar. It’s not an ideal solution. The ideal solution would be to have a decently funded and perhaps centrally organised training scheme in the parliament that paid a living wage. In its absence I’ll structure internships so that hopefully anyone could reasonably participate, though perhaps while studying at university or working part-time elsewhere. And I’ve told the one volunteer who could have afforded to work full-time to go and get a job anyway so he sees how the other half lives.
As one of the new generation of MSPs who have been through this sort of employment experience myself – and been so pleasantly derided as one of a ‘political class’ for it – I know that this is not simply to be written off as a ‘Guardian issue’. As a society we realise the scourge of youth unemployment and are moving to tackle it – well, north of the border anyway – but there is a less noticed problem. It is of the generation of underemployed graduates, who can’t find degree-level work. And who can’t afford to live in any ways other than staying uncomfortably with their parents or sharing a rent that ultimately only helps pay off someone else’s mortgage.
The last election campaign was about aspiration and vision and we have to as a nation and as a government include and take seriously the concerns of this so very aspirational group. That is not to say that these 20-somethings, who are relatively healthy, well-educated and middle-class, are the neediest in society – far from it. Indeed, I note the contrast that no one seems to be issuing press releases or founding pressure groups calling for apprentices to receive a living wage from day one. We do however have just as much responsibility to address unfairnesses affecting young graduates as we do with anyone else. For me that starts at my office door.