Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer
His bank balance was in the red, but Eóin Forker was determined to make it in the music industry. It was the summer of 2019, and Forker, who is 22 and from Armagh, secured an internship with a small record label. For £1,300 a month, he worked 30-40 hours a week meeting artists, running errands and attending studio sessions, all while living in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world.
“I have no degree behind me,” Forker says, explaining his decision to take a job that paid so little, “so I thought, I would rather take this chance and get something better out of it.” Because he didn’t have the deposit for a house-share, Forker stayed in backpacker hostels, which afforded him no privacy. His youthful ebullience began to coarsen into something more jaded. “I would just think,” he remembers, “I have to make it through this.” He was constantly incurring expensive overdraft fees. “I definitely skipped the odd meal,” he says.
In January this year, Forker cracked. He asked for a raise, and when he was rejected, he handed in his notice and moved back home. His plan was to save enough money to move back to London – this time with a cash buffer to keep him afloat – and find another internship. He found a job in a call centre, and started saving. “I thought it would just be a few months,” says Forker, “and then I would be back.”
I feel quite unmoored and purposeless because I don’t have anything to work towards
Ruva Takawira, 22
And then Covid-19 hit. “It’s decimated the music industry,” he says. “I see people in their late 20s who’ve been working for years being laid off.” With so many experienced people hunting for work, recruiting interns is low on many employers’ agendas. And so, for now, Forker is stuck. “I’ll still try and look for internships or work as much as possible,” he says. “But the fact that there’s so many people out of work definitely makes it challenging.”
These are difficult times to be a young person, making your way in the world. Internships that might have led to paying work have largely evaporated; those that remain are as prized as a rare pearl. A report from the Sutton Trust in July found that 61% of employers surveyed have cancelled all or some of the internships they’d usually offer, while 48% think there will be fewer such opportunities over the next year. For the class of 2020, Covid-19 has put paid to the internship, at least for now – and possibly, for good.
“It was a bummer,” says Connor Hudspith, 25, from Ayrshire, after his internship was cancelled. He had just completed a master’s degree at Leeds Beckett University and had lined up a placement at a production company in Bradford this summer – he hopes to work in events. The internship was all but confirmed. “They said, we’ll get you in, give you a few weeks’ experience and it will hopefully lead to paid work.”
But then Covid-19 hit, and the bottom fell out of the events industry. “They had to furlough everyone,” he says. “They said, we’ll get you next time.” Hudspith is trying to stay upbeat. “It’s just life,” he says. “It’s the cards we’ve been dealt.” But there’s no doubt that the prognosis for his cohort of graduates is bleak.
“This is a very tough year to try and get your career started,” says Tanya de Grunwald, an intern rights campaigner whose ebook How to Get a Graduate Job in a Pandemic is about to come out. “The impact of Covid is massive. Young people need all the support they can get.”
Like them or loathe them, internships are a key route into the labour market for graduates: although reliable data is hard to find, as many aren’t advertised, a 2017 report from the Institute for Public Policy Research estimates that there are 70,000 internships each year.
Before Covid-19, many employers had stopped offering exploitative unpaid internships, in part down to Grunwald’s activism. (Her site, Graduate Fog, has named and shamed employers including Arcadia and Vivienne Westwood.) Since 2010, the number of paid internship programmes has risen by up to 50%. “There has been a big change in the last two years,” says Grunwald, “and it’s been driven by diversity. Employers joined the dots between unpaid internships, and a lack of opportunities for people from poorer, rural, or ethnic minority backgrounds.”
This progress has been largely undone by the pandemic. “I feel like if you come from a low-income family and don’t have family that work in professional services,” says Kate Goodrum, 22, from Norwich, “you don’t know many people who can help you get a job. And with Covid, there are less opportunities advertised, so there’s less chance to network. I feel like if there were jobs available, they’d go to people who have a connection at that firm already.”
Goodrum has just graduated from Cambridge University, where she studied land economy. She is the first person in her family to go to university, and had hoped to pursue a career in finance. But internships are thin on the ground, and those that do exist seem to go to her better-connected peers, many of whom completed summer internships during their second year of university. “My mum is a cleaner, and my dad works in car hire,” says Goodrum. “We don’t have any connections in the industry I want to work in.” Since June, she has applied for around 40 internships. She hasn’t even got an interview.
“If you lose good quality internship programmes that are fairly advertised and paid, develop skills, and lead to future job opportunities,” says Rebecca Montacute of the Sutton Trust, “then you may end up with informal opportunities, for people with connections.”
Getting an internship during the pandemic seems an almost impossible endeavour. “A lot of internships expect you to have prior experience… you go around in a cycle of applying for stuff and not getting anywhere,” says Goodrum, “because you don’t have prior experience.”
Constantly applying for internships online without getting anywhere can be enormously dispiriting. “It’s difficult not being able to make a plan,” says Ruva Takawira, 22, from Devon, who has just completed a history degree at King’s College London. “It takes a toll on your mental health.”
Takawira had hoped to find a job in fashion PR. But companies aren’t hiring, and entry-level retail jobs that would have enabled her to gain experience in the industry while she looked for something permanent have dried up too. “I feel quite unmoored,” she says. “Purposeless. Because I don’t have anything to work towards. You worry about having a gap in your CV.”
Like many young graduates, Takawira has moved back in with her family, while she looks for a paid internship. (She cannot afford to do unpaid work.) She estimates she’s applied for up to 50 internships so far, with no success. With so many graduates entering the labour market, the bar is high. “I see positions that ask for two years of Photoshop experience,” says Takawira, “and Photoshop is expensive software to pay for. It’s frustrating. I feel like I have the capability to excel, I know I’m a fast learner, but there are specifications that you can’t meet.”
Because LinkedIn will tell you how many people have applied for a job posting, Takawira can see how many other people are scrapping for the same internships as her. “You see an internship posted,” she says, “and there have already been 490 applicants. It’s like everyone is fighting for hardly any roles.”
Will these graduates be locked out of the jobs market for years to come? Grunwald is hopeful that bigger employers will find a way to resume their internships later this year. “Many of the big employers who cancelled their schemes did so for logistical reasons,” she explains, “not financial reasons. It’s a huge amount of work to move an internship scheme online, and there are all sorts of considerations, for example safeguarding – are you going to have young interns on Zoom calls with senior executives, unaccompanied?”
Covid-19 could even be an opportunity to reset a system that has long been rigged in favour of the privileged, who can afford to live in major cities while working for free. If internships move online, this opens them up to low-income graduates, or those from rural communities. “The average cost of doing an internship in London is around £1,100 a month,” says Montacute. “If internships move online, that means people may be able to actually afford to do them for the first time.”
Related: Under-25s bearing brunt of Covid mental-health toll – survey
But an important part of the internship experience is being in the office in person: networking, observing more senior members of the team at work, and learning from those around you. If your internship is online, there’s a good possibility you’ll spend it twiddling your thumbs: it’s much easier for employers to forget about you if they can’t actually see you. “It’s harder to manage interns from home,” explains Grunwald, “particularly young people who may not have had a job before.”
As we head into the worst recession in living memory, Grunwald fears that unscrupulous employers may take advantage of young people by using them as a source of free labour. “Young people are vulnerable,” she says, “because they need experience to get jobs. It would be easy for bad employers to convince themselves they’re doing a good thing by giving people experience, rather than taking their labour without paying for it.”
For now, the class of Covid-19 may struggle to get a foot in the door – or even a toe – in their chosen industries. But all of the aspiring interns I spoke to have said they’ll keep trying, whatever the odds. “Things will definitely pick up,” says Forker, semi-convincingly. “I can see things picking up.” Because the most unfair internship of all is the one you can’t even get.