UNOGThe Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations (UN) is to hold an event today (February 27) on the current and future status of youth employment, “Breaking new ground: Partnerships for more and better jobs for young people”. Organized by the Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the conference will bring together international organizations and the private sector. The outcome of the one-day event will be submitted to the UN Member States during the Council’s High-level session in July 2012.

While its concern for youth employment is laudable, perhaps the UN should start by taking a look in its own backyard...

Of the UN agencies participating in the youth conference, only one provides compensation to its interns (the ILO).  For the thousands of young people coming through the UN system each year (around 3,500 in 2007), the vast majority must do so at their own expense. Students and their families fork out thousands of dollars to get a foot in the door, resulting in a situation rife with elitism.  Despite their best efforts, few interns actually gain employment with the UN, often taking on yet another internship in the hopes of eventually being paid.  For the lucky few who do manage, paid work usually comes in the form of precarious short-term contracts, most of which lack the various benefits provided to permanent staff. 

The trend in unpaid internships has been widely covered in the press, yet there has been little reported on what is taking place at the UN. In 2009, the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) published a report on internships within the UN system. Surveying 18 organizations, it concluded that internships were "overwhelmingly positive for all the parties involved" and were seen "as a win-win experience". Besides gaining valuable experience, the JIU stated that internships provided the "real possibility and hope that interns eventually may be hired within the United Nations system and be in policy- and decision-making positions."

Speaking to current interns, the picture appears quite different. One recent graduate stated with regret how today’s unpaid interns are "disposable". While internships were originally intended to give current students exposure to the working world, they have in many cases become a convenient way for organizations to cut costs. Graduates who have already earned their qualifications are told they are unqualified for professional positions, leaving them little choice but to take on additional internships. Despite the conclusions of the JIU report, it is clear in many cases that interns are replacing workers who would otherwise be paid.

The current system is flawed on multiple fronts. While in some cases interns are able to secure outside funding, many rely on family, personal savings, or even loans to gain UN experience. Given the costs of living in cities like New York and Geneva, an unpaid internship for a period of three to six months could easily cost tens of thousands of dollars, putting the experience out of reach for all but the most privileged. These conditions skew the geographic distribution of interns, most of whom come from developed countries. According to the JIU, 59% came from developed countries, with a mere 5% from Least Developed Countries. For an organization that prides itself on inclusion, diversity, and equality, the UN’s refusal to compensate its interns has created a system that counters those very ideals.

Beyond the issue of pay, the UN system discriminates against its interns by placing unnecessary constraints on how they can later be employed. At most agencies, former interns are required to have a 3-6 month break of contract before they are allowed to start any paid work. This arbitrary break is inconvenient and frustrating, both for the intern and for the supervisor in need of a worker. The JIU report recognized this fact in 2009, suggesting that such breaks be eliminated. Three years later, little has been changed at most organizations, including the UN Offices in Geneva (UNOG).

Furthermore, the United Nations does not recognize internships as a valid form of work experience. Human Resources staff at UNOG tells young people that their time spent as interns counts as half the rate of "real" work experience. Therefore, a graduate student with over a year of internship experience and a Masters degree would be ineligible for any type of entry-level professional position within the UN. This leaves young people stuck in a catch-22: without internship experience, they cannot get jobs, yet with internship experience, they are ineligible for professional posts, driving them to take on more unpaid work.

If the UN system wishes to attract and retain the best and the brightest, the system needs to change. Organizations cannot continue to view their most junior staff as an easy way to save money and free up backlogs.  A decent living stipend should be provided and rules should be changed to facilitate hiring interns for professional positions. Such systems are already in place at the ILO, IOM and the WTO. The UN should work with these organizations to share best practices and improve the intern system.

Having concrete objectives and a proactive attitude will be essential in engaging the UN. Young people should approach the administration in a positive and professional way. Joining organizations like the Geneva Interns Association is one way to get involved and give feedback to improve the system. Current UN staff with a sympathetic ear should also step up and show support for young employees. 

While the 2009 JIU report was a good first step, there is a clear need for follow-up.  The survey period between 2007 and 2008 took place just before the financial crisis. Youth unemployment has skyrocketed since then, driving many to take on unpaid internships.  As budget cuts have reduced the availability of paid work, the line between what was once seen as a learning experience - and what now resembles something more - has blurred. If finding "more and better jobs for young people" is truly a UN priority, improving the way it employs its own young workers should start today.

If you'd like to let the UN know what you think, tweet your suggestions to ECOSOC at  #UN4youth.

(Photo © DR)

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