Why Unpaid Internships Exist And How Willing Are S’pore 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?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 thpany 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 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.
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.
However the respondents also acknowledged thpanies 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 compa…