The question of internships has been in the news recently. Not only are people complaining that the system of unpaid internships perpetuates the class system in a lot of high paid metropolitan jobs, but people have even started overtly auctioning them off at Oxford.
I benefited from internships myself, in both my summers while at Cambridge. The first of these I got through being on the winning team of the BCS programming competition (which itself I got travel funding for from the college). One of the volunteers from the BCS who was organising it found places for two of us at his workplace, a financial services software house in central London. It was within an hour and a half commuting distance of my parents', who agreed to put up my Australian friend Ed over the summer while the two of us worked. I spent 8 weeks hacking Delphi for them, for about Â£200 a week. At the end of it my temporary colleagues gave me a copy of Stroustroup's C++ book, which I felt was generous of them (I think they liked me and were impressed by how much I'd got done); and I still have my product advertising mug from back then. Subsequently I spent the money on a laptop and going interrailing: I was the last of the grant+no tuition fees generation, so going to university was not a massive debt inducing experience.
The first BCS competition also introduced us to some people from IBM Hursley, who would almost certainly have arranged us places there if we'd asked.
The second summer Altera funded three internships within the computer lab, which involved working with Simon Moore to produce the hardware and associated teaching materials which would be used by subsequent second year students. This was extremely educational as we were doing a proper digital electronics design project from start to finish, with access to professional tools. It taught me a lot about the process and also about analog aspects of digital design, especially noise and grounding. I still have one of the PCBs as a memento. Altera offered us interviews and jobs at the end of our course; I decided not to take up the offer as I didn't
fancy the location, somewhere near Slough in the soulless "M4 corridor". But the electronics experience helped me get a job with Azuro later.
So both of these were a combination of meritocratic processes and advantage. The first one was clearly selected on the basis of us doing well in the BCS contest (meritocratic) but we had college funding for that (advantage, although not a parental advantage). The Altera one was done by interview (meritocratic) among Cambridge undergraduates (pre-selected). Both were
also paid, which it seems that not all internships are these days.
I can see how this process is difficult from the other side: it's hard to justify hiring a paid intern unless you feel certain you can get some proper work out of them. That in turn is hard to determine without a selection process - but that itself costs time. Hence the huge preference for an intern that someone else can 'vouch' for, or has some kind of track
record. This is made slightly easier in a technical area where ability has tangibility and is more linked to results.
Unpaid internships, on the other hand, seem like a much dodgier thing and a straightforward violation of minimum wage laws. Paid-for internships are even worse, overt bribery; but I think for the forseeable future those will be confined to media and political sectors where there's no meritocratic recruitment anyway, it's all based on schmoozing. I'm told that international
development pretty much requires a year or two of unpaid internships or volunteer work on one's CV, which means it's entirely staffed by trustafarians.