Generation Praktikum Heads into the Real World

A new study casts a light on the legal shadow world of internships in Austria, as graduates work for free with few prospects

There was a time not long ago, when students left university for a solid entry-level job, launching a career that, in Austria, often lasted for life. No longer. Today’s students are part of “Generation Praktikum” – the graduates whose careers start with a string of internships, working full time for a token wage or nothing at all.

This summer, Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek, the Social Democratic (SPÖ) Minister for Women and Public Service, kicked off a debate by calling for an end to unpaid internships in the Austrian civil service, where more than 350 recent graduates worked last year. Specifically, she wants interns to be paid based on the length of their engagement, and irrespectively of their qualifications.

In theory, internships are a good opportunity: Like apprenticeships of old, they give experience in a particular field, supplementing or substituting a formal education with a practical one. In practice however, internships are complex and difficult to define.

A timely study published in June, entitled Praktika und Praktikanten/Praktikantinnen in Österreich (“Internships and Interns in Austria”), seeks to clarify the origins and legal underpinnings of the practice, and the success and satisfaction rate of its participants.

According to the study, by Hubert Eichmann, Bernhard Saupe, Marion Vogt, and Sara Scheiflinger from the Work Force Research and Consulting Service (FORBA), the lack of remuneration is just a symptom of a wider problem.  Interns do not fall clearly into any established employment category. They are effectively volunteers, who have no rights under collective agreements, nor any protection under general workers’ rights legislation.

Internships’ ambivalent nature as both work and education makes them difficult to regulate under traditional labour laws. At one extreme, so-called Pflichtpraktika (compulsory internships) are part of a study programme, providing supplementary training in an academic field. According to Robert Stoffler from the Austrian Workers’ Chamber (AK), the biggest problem with these internships is deciding on the remuneration for the participants.

At the other extreme, some internships are intended as entry-level jobs.  These have the highest degree of dissatisfaction, the study found, and are the most difficult to justify legally. While interns’ duties and hours often approximate that of an actual job, they lack a collective agreement. This results in an  “asymmetry between the intern and the employer” as employers are free to delegate tasks and shape the internship as a whole.

Though intended as a route to a paid job, nothing is guaranteed. Internships listed on a CV may or may not count as work experience in later job applications, and internships are seen not so much as an indication of applicants’ talents, as of their ability to work for months without pay due to parents’ financial backing.

Rather than providing clear support for Heinisch-Hosek’s reform plans, the FORBA study makes broad criticisms of the practice as a whole, supported by testimonials and an analysis of legal loopholes. Paying a decent wage to interns serving the Austrian government still neglects the more pressing issue of the private sector, and those working outside an educational programme.  They remain in a legal grey area, “volunteering” to work full-time hours, with the fruits of their labour the most uncertain of all.

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