The Coalition government’s Budget plan for internships for the long-term unemployed was instantly condemned by the trade union movement and the ALP, but given qualified support by at least some social welfare groups. Internships potentially provide a path for the long-term unemployed to get back into the workforce by gaining both confidence and skills and a work record which will provide prospective employers with enough confidence to offer them a real job. Otherwise, for too many people unemployment becomes an endless cycle of increasing hopelessness and despair. Moreover, a well designed internship scheme would provide better training and experience than either an artificial make-work “work for the dole” scheme or endless classroom-based TAFE training for non-existent jobs.
Nevertheless, one can understand trade union concerns about such a scheme. Unless carefully designed and regulated there is a clear potential for it to undermine hard-won award wages and conditions.
From my perspective concerns about the internship plan are reasonable but probably exaggerated.
Clearly the concern is that unscrupulous employers will take on “interns” as effectively free slave labour and then sack them at the end of the subsidised internship period (apparently one to three months). However, there are very few jobs that are so unskilled that they can be profitably performed by long-term unemployed interns with little or no on-the-job training. Even waiting on tables, which some union representatives have pointed to as a potential area of abuse, is quite a skilled occupation that takes many weeks or longer to be able to perform competently. A restaurant that relied on cheap untrained interns would generate lots of unhappy customers and end up rapidly going bankrupt.
For most jobs, it is cheaper for the first couple of months at least for the boss to do the job themselves or employ a skilled, experienced worker to do it, because it takes more effort and valuable time to train and correct a new intern on every task than it does to do it yourself. Sensible employers are not going to employ a “cheap” intern merely to sack them when their subsidised employment period ends, when it costs more to do so than to employ a skilled and experienced worker and pay them award wages. That has certainly been my experience over the years in running a legal practice, first with employing articled clerks and more recently newly admitted practitioners who have supposedly already received basic Practical Legal Training as a condition of admission. The reality is that it takes quite a few months for them to become even marginally productive and profitable for the employer, and during that time it would actually be much quicker and more profitable to perform the assigned tasks yourself. You employ a newly admitted lawyer or graduate clerk as an investment in the firm’s future, not as a way to make a fast buck.
That said, apparently one of the reasons why the old system of articles of clerkship was abolished as the main method of practical training for the legal profession was that a significant number of firms apparently were not providing meaningful practical legal training and experience for their new law graduate employees. They were using them as cheap secretarial labour and assigning them tasks like filing, photocopying, reception duties, doing the daily rounds and banking, and buying coffee and sandwiches for the partners. No doubt it would be possible to structure work tasks in a similarly cynical way in many workplaces. For instance, cheap intern “waiters” might be assigned to mopping floors, doing the dishes and peeling potatoes rather than learning useful, transferable skills as an actual waiter.
Would promises of meaningful training and the prospect of a real job at the end of the internship period be sufficient? It seems to me that at the very least prospective employers of government-subsidised interns should be required to enter into a formal enforceable agreement specifying the training they will provide during the internship period and giving an enforceable undertaking that they do in fact have relevant real properly paid jobs to offer to interns who prove suitable. Moreover, there would need to be a vigorously policed system of random workplace audits to ensure that employers of interns were living up to their promises. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want the system to involve too much oppressive red tape because that would likely deter most employers from offering internships at all.
I have no doubt it would be possible to design and implement a fair and workable subsidised internship program for the long-term unemployed, but it won’t be easy. Moreover, whether a Coalition government has the capacity or even the willingness to do so is distinctly questionable, particularly having regard to their fairly poor record in combating abusive employment practices in franchise operations like 7-Eleven and others. “Light touch” regulation is a laudable default aspiration, but can too easily become just an empty rhetorical device disguising open slather laissez-faire governance in the interests of corporate mates at the expense of the poor, weak and vulnerable.