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Unpaid work experience in Australia: prevalence, nature and impact

21 Dec 2016

Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that internships and other forms of unpaid work experience (UWE) are becoming increasingly common in Australia.

Well-designed work experience programs can clearly play an important role in the transition from education to work, helping to develop valuable work-based skills, enhancing employment prospects through the development of professional networks and assisting job- seekers to match their human capital profile to labour market demands. Research consistently shows that the majority of UWE participants consider it has a positive impact on their critical and analytical thinking, interpersonal and social skills and improved career management and job search skills. They also consider UWE to be helpful in gaining employment. 

At the same time, however, numerous studies, including a 2013 report for the Fair Work Ombudsman and a 2014 NSW parliamentary inquiry, have highlighted some risks associated with the growth in such arrangements. These include inequality of access to learning opportunities that well-structured internships may provide; variable quality experiences in terms of the development of skills and capacities considered desirable by employers; the costs of undertaking some forms of UWE; and the displacement of regular employees by UWE participants. 

There has been no reliable, national data on the prevalence or quality of internships in Australia. In order to redress this knowledge deficit, the Commonwealth Department of Employment agreed to fund a team of researchers from UTS, QUT and the University of Adelaide to conduct a study of UWE. The research comprised a nationally representative online survey of working-age Australians to examine the prevalence of UWE in Australia, the characteristics of UWE placements and participants, the experiences of UWE participants, and the self-reported impact of UWE on employment outcomes.

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