Clegg being too simplistic on interns

 
Allister Heath
SO Nick Clegg wants to discourage unpaid internships, which he believes entrench privilege. It is indeed desperately important to make it easier for children from poorer backgrounds to get on in life. But Clegg’s broader arguments are overly simplistic and could actually end up reducing, rather than increasing, opportunities.

It is much harder for poor youngsters to work for free than it is for middle-class children. Some do it by taking second, paid jobs in shops or restaurants at weekends and the evenings, or by using some of their student loans. But internships can also help outsiders proportionately more than wealthier children, who would be more likely to get good jobs anyway, even without the benefit of the right internships.

They are the perfect opportunity for bright, young people from impoverished backgrounds to impress and to show that they have the drive, determination and other relevant skills to succeed. Because the application process for internships tends to be less extreme than that for actual jobs, the barriers to entry that they face are lower in every respect apart from the (admittedly crucial) need for self-financing. In the vast majority of situations, less attention is paid to the background, university or school of an intern applicant than of a fully-fledged job applicant. Firms aren’t scared of making a mistake with interns – but they are much more worried about getting it wrong with real, contracted staff.

Forcing firms to pay interns the minimum wage would lead to a collapse in the number of internships and hence opportunities. Experienced workers would become relatively more attractive. And if employers were compelled to pay, they would become pickier – it would become even harder for outsiders to break in.

So what is the answer? First, don’t force firms to pay interns. Second, don’t exaggerate the role of internships: good grades in the right subject at the right university, and learning the right soft skills, are most important. Third, raise money for scholarships to pay for the work experience living costs of 10,000 poor kids. Fourth, apprenticeships must go mainstream.

Ultimately, the dominant barriers to social mobility are poor schools and a culture of low expectations. That is what politicians such as Clegg ought to be focusing on.

IN PRAISE OF TALL BUILDINGS
If anybody hasn’t been around London Bridge recently, I would recommend a visit. The skyline has changed drastically with the emergence of the remarkably tall Shard, developed by Sellar. Some people will hate it – but I love it.

Skyscrapers are sprouting up across London, adding to the existing forest in Canary Wharf and the Square Mile – and transforming our city and its office stock for the better. They include the Pinnacle (or Bishopsgate Tower), developed by Arab Investments and due in 2013, subject to funding. The Heron Tower at 110 Bishopsgate was developed by Gerald Ronson’s Heron. The Walkie Talkie (20 Fenchurch Street) is being developed by Land Securities and Canary Wharf and due in 2014, as is the Cheesegrater (122 Leadenhall Street), from British Land and Oxford Properties. I can’t wait.

Some dislike skyscrapers because they are built for commercial use, unlike St Paul’s Cathedral or the Palace of Westminster. Rubbish. Tall buildings are a symbol of confidence, of rebirth and of modernity – exactly what Britain needs today.

allister.heath@cityam.com

Follow me on Twitter: @allisterheath