Santander bank has funded a contract for Brighton University to arrange placements for graduates who have not found a job.
Sam Rhodes, student services manager (career development) at Brighton University Careers Service, said that the new contract had led to 25 placements or internships this year.
He was taking part in the Big Debate, a quarterly event organised by the Brighton and Hove Chamber of Commerce.
Mr Rhodes said: “An unpaid period of work experience can be acceptable.
“Once it starts becoming of significant value for the employer, it should be paid.”
Tony Mernagh, executive director of the Brighton and Hove Economic Partnership, said that work experience was not compulsory and those taking part could walk away any time.
But he said that young people who had experience in a workplace had a better chance of finding a job.
Benefits bosses locally were supportive but protests had put off national and multinational companies such as Boots from offering placements.
As a result, Mr Mernagh said, more young people in Brighton and Hove wanted work experience than were able to find a placement.
The debate was held at City College in Pelham Street, Brighton.
The speakers included Paula O’Shea, the managing director of Brighton Journalist Works, Vicki Hughes, founder and director of Fugu PR, and Andy Winter, chief executive of Brighton Housing Trust (BHT).
Concerns were expressed about exploitation, how long some people worked without pay and whether internships were easier for those whose parents could fund them.
Mr Mernagh dismissed notions of slave labour – and some in the audience said that they had been given their first job as a direct result of work experience.
Councillor Geoffrey Bowden, who runs a business in Brighton, said that he paid people on work placements.
One recent graduate said that she had struggled to gain work experience while at university because of her age. She appealed to employers to help students as they tried to start their career.
Councillor Phélim Mac Cafferty said that the question was the wrong way round in the sixth-richest economy in the world.
He dismissed unpaid work and the debate about whether the living wage should replace the minimum wage and said that there should instead be a maximum wage.
Mr Winter summed up by saying that outcomes mattered.
He contrasted the way that some big companies provided an advantage for the children of the wealthy with BHT’s internship programme which gave a chance to those with little prospect of work.
He said that 50 per cent of the 38 people who were on BHT’s internship programme in its first year found work.
They were, he said, people who few employers would have offered a job.
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