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Interns and Influence – Daddy’s Little Secret

April 13, 2011

The subject of unpaid work experience has generated a bit of media steam in the UK lately. When  Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, made some sanctimonious noises about  the practice of unpaid internships being dished out through personal connections of parents rather than merit, the fun began.

The debate seems to have been on two levels. First, whether it is right for organisations to take on interns without paying them the minimum wage. And second, whether the use of patronage is giving the offspring of the wealthy and well-connected an advantage in the foothills of their careers.

What might have been a fairly humdrum story was elevated to unexpected heights when Clegg revealed that he had a helping hand when his Dad, a banker, had a word in the ear of a friend, and young Nick ended up on a work placement with a Finnish bank. At which point, ever grateful for the opportunity to kick poor Clegg, a number of newspapers gleefully accused him of hypocrisy. The Times even ran a cartoon of him with his head up his backside – not a portrait that would be well received by governments in the Middle East, where I reside.

Before I pitch into the debate, let me disclose a couple of my shameful secrets, just so that you can see that I have a track record on the issue.

I also once did a work placement arranged by my father. But it was not in the birch-panelled boardroom of a Finnish bank. I ended up in an utterly unremarkable solicitor’s office in the equally unremarkable town of Walsall. It was the kind of law firm that eked a living out of property and death – in other words, handling real estate transactions and processing people’s wills. A dry and dusty place, where I spent two weeks shuffling paper files from one desk to another. About as far from the setting for a John Grisham novel as a leaky tramp steamer is from a Russian oligarch’s gin palace.

The job was only rivalled for tedium by the weeks I used to spend during college holidays watching a machine feeding marshmallows into plastic bags at Cadburys. Two of the enduring mysteries of my life are why the experience with Vaillant & Co didn’t put me off a career in law, and why working in a chocolate factory didn’t stunt for ever my liking for chocolate. The law got its comeuppance later, but I still gorge on chocolate from time to time.

When my one of my daughters was of a similar age, I used what little influence I had to get my eldest daughter some paid work experience with a recruitment firm in which I had an interest. She spent a few weeks doing the modern equivalent of shuffling papers – data entry. I never found out how useful she was to them. She was at the grunting stage, and the associate I prevailed upon to employ her described her as a “character”, which reminds me of one of those ambivalent job testimonials that contain words like “Mr Ramsbottom will be remembered by all who worked with him”.

So I am one of those wicked people who has used and benefited from personal influence in the job market. And I would do it again should the opportunity arise. As would millions of Mums and Dads around the world anxious to give their beloved offspring a lift. But I suspect that the vast majority of internships, work experience placements and holiday jobs – call them what you will – contribute little to the development of young careers.

Most of them, especially in the West, are encouraged by parents for social and economic reasons. Anything is better than seeing your children mooning around the house during school and college holidays, complaining of having no money and burying themselves in Facebook and video games. Get them out working, get them to appreciate the value of money, give them something constructive to do, for God’s sake!

And the kids themselves, much as they appreciate the extra cash, take delight in moaning to their mates about the boring job they’re doing. As I did.

Moving to the two issues in hand, is it right for companies and political parties to take on unpaid help? It depends. Take political internships. There’s a big difference between a Member of Parliament asking a young person to spend six months or a year working in their office for free, carrying out research and getting involved in the business of Parliament, and recruiting a volunteer to man the phones and walk the streets in an election campaign. In the former case, the intern is providing a service that would otherwise need to be carried out by a paid employee. In an election, however, there is an element of idealism and volunteer spirit that is often entirely divorced from the business of gaining work experience.

Within companies, a four-week work experience stint rarely does much beyond give the intern a feeling for the industry in which they are working. There is not much time and even less motive for a company to train an intern to do anything other than fairly mundane and deskilled work. Responsible companies will make the time of their staff to available to mentor the intern, and will perhaps allow them to shadow key staff. That takes resources and commitment, not to mention space and facilities.

But that’s a very different situation from the one my daughter experienced when she lost her job in an interior design company. She went because a couple of ambitious parents offered to fund their daughter to work for the company unpaid for a year.

From the parent’s point of view, you could argue that a year’s experience in a dream job might be a better investment than funding their daughter through a Master’s degree. And for the daughter, who doesn’t care where the money’s coming from, it’s a dream start to a career, provided she has the talent and drive to make use of the experience.

I do believe that in the West there are so many different circumstances under which people work for free that it would be almost impossible introduce regulation beyond what already exists. It would also be undesirable. I’ve long thought that people in work should look at themselves as personal corporations. They should not expect that anyone else should look out for them as of right. Whether we chose to work in the private sector, where job security is never a given, or in government, where there is a greater chance of a job for life, is our decision. And if we chose to work for free as an investment in our personal corporations – also known as careers – I don’t see the difference doing that and a company investing in its future.

Where legislation needs to draw a line is where working for free becomes a compulsory activity – people trafficking, indentured labour and slavery. On the other side of that line, we need to place a little more trust in the morality of our society, in our ability speak out about malpractice and in the willingness of individuals to walk away from exploitation.

Concerning the issue of patronage, it’s unrealistic to believe that you will ever eliminate nepotism or the use of influence to benefit family, friends and close-knit groups. Here in the Middle East, where the extended family is much more the key object of loyalty than in the West, the idea that you should not use your influence to benefit family members would be unthinkable. And in societies where families live closer to the edge of survival, the prosperity of one family member is often critical to the prosperity of all.

In Britain, where the furore began, the debate is in the context of a belief that it is becoming harder for those not from a privileged background to break into some of the most lucrative and powerful professions. The UK Sunday Times quotes a 2009 report stating that whereas 7% of the population is privately educated, 70% of High Court Judges, 68% of top lawyers, 54% of FTSE CEOs, 54% of top journalists and 51% of top doctors went to private schools.

Be that as it may, whether Daddy’s efforts load the dice in favour of his son and daughter is a different matter altogether. There are very few organisations in which the well-connected but untalented prosper. So an interview, introduction or work placement arranged by a parent is absolutely no guarantee of success. Yes, it might result in a job, but only if the beneficiary can prove they are up to it. And the first job is no guarantee of long-term success, especially if a person has talent, but not drive and motivation.

Of course there are exceptions. Family business owners might groom little Johnny to run the company even if he is a bit dull in the eyes of everyone else. This is one of the reasons why second-generation family businesses sometimes fail.

Far more pernicious than patronage is desire of many families to shape the future of their kids. In the Middle East, this has led to generations who have been led to believe that the only acceptable career is behind a desk “managing” others – preferably in the government, where they work perhaps six hours a day and find it hard to get fired even if they are supremely untalented.

In the UK, the steely determination – especially among families of Asian origin – that their sons and daughters should become doctors, lawyers or accountants has led to many a fractured relationship when the object of this family pressure really wants to be a writer, musician or supermarket manager.

So once again, I suggest that, keen as some legislators might be to make their mark and regulate what we have for breakfast every morning, they should leave well alone. Otherwise we might find ourselves banning ivy league fraternities, Masonic lodges, parent-teacher associations, golf club committees and ladies who lunch. In fact, just about every setting in which people look for a back to scratch.

As in the case of unpaid work, just about everywhere in the world there is a legal line beyond which patronage becomes corruption. Bribing a government official to give little Johnny a job crosses that line. So does persuading a teacher to alter a son or daughter’s grades, or prevailing upon a friendly HR manager to skew the selection criteria in favour of a relative. The fact that some societies are better at dealing with corruption than others doesn’t alter the line itself.

Rather than worry about a tiny elite that gets a glimpse of a future career thanks to Daddy’s connections, we would be far better off- as Eleanor Mills of the Sunday Times points out – working out how to level the educational playing field. We need to create an equality of education opportunity, so that the top universities do not come under pressure to exercise positively discrimination in favour of kids educated by the state.

As Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust was quoted as saying in Mills’s article, “there are 100,000 kids so poor that the state subsidises their lunch, yet only 40 of them end up at Oxbridge. That’s fewer than go from just one of our top public (meaning private, SR) schools. That’s got to change.”

Here in the Middle East, the gap between public and private education is even wider. It is only mitigated by policies of many governments – especially in the GCC – to send large number of kids abroad for their tertiary education, and by an almost industrial attitude to getting young nationals into jobs regardless of the quality of their education or their suitability for the work. But that’s another discussion altogether.

So it’s fine to enjoy the discomfiture of a prominent politician – after all, that’s what they’re there for, isn’t it? But let’s not get into a froth about issues that are well down the strategic scale, and concentrate on what really matters: education.

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