Singaporean

Why Unpaid Internships Exist And How Willing Are S'porean Youth To Take Them Up?

Unpaid internships have existed for a long time and has been a topic of contention for college students and fresh graduates all over the world. Is it a case of modern-day slavery or a great stepping stone for youth to pave their way into the job market?

While some might think unpaid internships are unfair, they exist in Singapore and are completely legal. But why do companies offer them in the first place?

unpaid internship
Image Credit: MBA Crystal Ball

In today’s competitive job market, employees are starting to observe that achieving good grades in school is not a definite way to secure their dream job. Similarly, employers have been reporting a “skills gap” in graduates.

According to a 2017 survey by Glints, 78 percent of 1,000 respondents “have actively searched outside of school for opportunities, to take part in industry-led competitions or work internship opportunities which they believe will help them gain skills for their future job.”

These factors have driven up the demand for internship positions, which possibly leads to a fall in the wages offered as well.

Some companies might believe that the learning opportunities derived from working with them are great enough to offset a fair wage. Others might be genuinely cash-strapped, and require all the help they can get (especially during the Covid-19 pandemic).

What Do Singaporeans Think?

Singaporeans in various industries have started to feel the wrath of the Covid-19 pandemic on their rice bowls, with job cuts and retrenchments announced on a regular basis.

Companies in the tourism industry have taken the largest hit, and companies like Resorts World Sentosa and Airbnb have announced large-scale retrenchments. MNCs and unicorns like HSBC and Linkedin are not spared, and both have laid off employees in the past week.

Hiring sentiment is also at its weakest since 2009, with only 11 percent of Singaporean employers (out of 266 surveyed) planning to hire. Meanwhile, another 38 percent expects to let staff go.

Be it full-time roles or internships to boost future employability, Singaporeans are hungry for jobs. What about unpaid internships — how willing are Singaporeans to take them up?

We spoke to to some Singaporean youth aged between 20 and 30 to find out their thoughts.

Learning And Passion Triumphs… For Now

Unpaid internships
Image Credit: Singapore Business Review

A common theme that ran across all 21 individuals who said they would take up an unpaid internship was their desire to amass knowledge and experience in an industry they were passionate about.

I value the experience, especially if it’s something I really want to pursue, more than the money. Plus internships are a stepping stone, so I don’t think of it as a job but rather a learning experience.

Nina Ye, 23, Graduate Student

27-year-old Jason Poh had also previously done an unpaid internship during his undergraduate days, and shared that he decided to take it up for a variety of reasons. These included the fact that the company was in an industry that he wanted to enter in the future, and the that the role was aligned with his “interests and beliefs”.

“I was just three months from graduation, so my priority was to put myself in the best possible position to be hired. Pay would have been secondary. At that time, I was job hunting while also adding to my portfolio with the unpaid internship,” said the Psychology graduate.

The Impact Of Covid-19

The pandemic and hiring prospects also had a part to play in some of the respondents’ decision to take up an unpaid internship.

Alicia Aw, an Economics undergraduate had attempted to look for a paid internship during her university’s summer break. However, she failed to receive a response and decided to settle for an unpaid internship instead.

Despite the job being unpaid, she did not feel shortchanged as the role was in her “area of interest” and she could “garner experience” to give her an edge when applying for other internships or jobs in future. She also took on a part-time job during weekends to contribute to her expenses.

Meanwhile, altruistic motivations played a part in Phillip Tan’s decision to take on an unpaid internship during this Covid-19 period. The 23-year-old works in an Internet Of Things (IOT) startup that gamifies the tracking of workers inside workplaces.

Besides being interested in the field, the Electrical Engineering undergraduate also wanted to play a part in looking after the well-being of the foreign workers in Singapore, who had been highly affected by Covid-19.

Ethicality Comes First

Respondents who were against unpaid internships felt that not being given a pay check would lead to the interns feeling under-appreciated and exploited.

Jack Chan, 23, quipped that he would take into consideration the reason why companies were dishing out unpaid internships — as he felt it reflected the company’s values.

Some companies hire interns for free as they have excessive pride because they are prestigious. No doubt some can provide impactful learning opportunities, but it’s the hubris behind it that I think makes me turn away from unpaid work.

Jack Chan, 23, Undergraduate

However the respondents also acknowledged that some companies are cash-strapped due to the Covid-19 situation, and not paying interns would then be more understandable.

Ultimately, I’d say that if the company has tremendous resources, there should be some form of compensation or payments as it is reflective of the company’s values where manpower is concerned.

Phillip Tan, 23, Electrical Engineering Undergraduate

Advancing Inequality

Many also rightly noted that taking on an unpaid internship is a privilege that some cannot afford, especially during the global recession.

Daren Khek and Darryl Wong, both 23, felt that no matter “how good” the company is, they would still require money for daily necessities, and thus an allowance would be the basic requirements for them when looking for an internship.

However, when asked if he would do an unpaid internship with his a company he really wanted to work with, Darryl concluded that he would “probably” take it up if he had the potential to be converted to a full-time staff there.

On the other hand, Daren mentioned that he was “extremely frugal”, and stood his ground that there had to be allowances for meals at least. If the company provided free lunches, then that would be a bonus.

A New Era Of Work

Covid-19 has arguably heralded in the new normal of work: remote and freelance work is likely to stay for a long time.

Employers have also been increasingly focused on the workplace experience of their new hires. A tighter job market also means that employers have a leverage over job or internship seekers.

Students and youth themselves have also believe that they need real workplace experience to be competitive in the labour market.

Therefore, as long as the supply for unpaid interns is met, the phenomenon of unpaid internships will likely be here to stay.

Featured Image Credit: HR Asia

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