Internships have fallen into two camps in the news recently. Are they hot tickets to be sold at auction, or forms of packaged exploitation to be binned asap? In the exploited camp, former unpaid intern Kerri Hudson was awarded £1,025 after taking My Village to an employment tribunal for six weeks’ unpaid work. At the same time, Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation, written by a former intern, is hitting UK shelves with the tagline “how to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy“.
Earn nothing, learn little… A growing swell of voices acknowledge that something slightly unfathomable is going on.
And yet there’s a market in internships, we’ll pay to work abroad, for example, and a week at GQ fetched £3,000 at a charity auction. Ross Perlin’s book claims 77% of unpaid interns are women and these stories might create a prejudiced image of interns as daddy’s girls cheerfully living on credit cards, a suggestion most interns will find quite upsetting. In the Evening Standard Rosamund Urwin claimed internships benefit ‘wealthy mediocrities’ but plenty of people from ordinary backgrounds are doing it, not joyeously but simply hoping this will help them get ahead. My friend Stephanie Goldbold is a First Class graduate living with her family:
“I’m fed up of reading articles which tell me I must be a soulless rich kid because I have interned. I interned because no one would give me a job until I had, and didn’t seem to want to once I had anyway – but that’s another story.”
Like Steph, I’m a First-Class graduate. In my case I’m industry-qualified in journalism, seeking a full-time paid job in media. I’ve waitressed in a nightclub, put up posters to promote swing dancing and tutored children while sleeping on sofas and floors. Mostly, though, I’ve done unpaid ‘work experience’ since I returned from a stint teaching English in China, a job that was well-paid. What have I learned about working in Britain?
1. Know the law
LegalWeek offers a good guide to determining the legality (and frequent illegality) of unpaid internships. It’s worth considering these, obviously:
“Government guidance has suggested that genuine internships should last no more than two to four weeks and for no more than 40 hours a week.”
“The intern should not actually work but should shadow an employee to learn what to do.”
I’d be surprised if this last point is ever unquestionably met. Whether my placements have lasted a week or four months, I’ve been expected to show initiative and I’ve regarded it as ‘actual work’. At the same time, though, when I get no support, I rapidly feel devalued. Employers that provided brilliant mentoring in the past year were VentnorBlog IslandNews and The Times Defence Desk. The Guardian‘s Society section also warmed the cockles of my heart. All these placements were either brief or casual and came about through direct contact with an editor. Ventnor Blog is an award-winning hyper-local website on the Isle of Wight, so it’s worth noting that you can get great training in small local organisations – you don’t have to run to London.
Also pertinent in the law: an intern can be recognised as a ‘worker’ if they complete set hours, carry out set duties and actively contribute to the organisation. If you’re a ‘worker’, you are entitled to minimum wage. Interns Anonymous have good advice on how to claim.
The NUJ have also launched a Cashback For Interns scheme for over-21s (students can still be offered extensive unpaid experience if it contributes to their studies)
A lot of interns rush into an exploitative, illegal arrangement without remembering their rights.
2. Making it count
Interning in itself has no value so make it count. Simply having been present in an office does not make you more employable, so be clear with yourself about the skills you want to gain and contacts you want to make. If the internship is failing to teach you anything new, what are you doing there? If you’re too shy to demand the experience you value; if asking for anything provokes a ‘little old me, why do I matter?’ response in you, please read this leaflet:
I’m sorry for whacking you over the head with self-help literature already. Incidentally a bit of gossip I heard as a female intern was that male interns tend to cause more trouble. They waltz in and ask to write a big feature, while women tend put up with the menial jobs, forgetting that eagerness is valued. There’s nothing wrong with naivety, so be ambitious. Don’t worry about exposing your inexperience.
3. Finding accommodation
Accommodation will need to be cheap, or, preferably, free: First Class Degree No Fixed Abode – there should’ve been a little tick-box for it on the Census because believe it or not, twenty-somethings with suspiciously good diction are roughing it to escape the family nest. I met one of them drinking tea at the Natural History Museum. “I know all the good places, because I’m homeless!” he chirped. “Don’t worry about me. My parents live in London, I’ve chosen this lifestyle – I’m regarding this as a period of study. I want to be an anthropologist.”
I’m not recommending you camp out under Waterloo Bridge, but London hostels are expensive and if there are avenues for living rent-free, explore them: make friends. There are so many young people without their own place. Most can depend on family but I’ve found friends equally useful.
4. Remember, you might not be popular
Unpaid labour devalues paid labour. A friend of mine refers to the interns in his office as ‘s***munchers’ almost fondly. In some organisations, they’re being used in lieu of entry-level staff, and you may encounter a workplace awkwardness that I’ve dubbed the Guilt Wall. At one broadsheet magazine, colleagues visibly cringed when they realised I’d spent a day in office while they were on a press trip. “I’ll definitely be doing a lot of catching up this weekend! Would you like a biscuit?” Senior staff barely met my eye. I had to renew my ‘visitor card’ every two weeks. I got valuable experience, but I was under no illusions: when I finished my time, I’d be replaced by another intern. It was how things were being done.
Which brings us to the self-perpetuating problem of unpaid work. In the 1980s, you could move to a city with little or no experience in the media, get a job within two weeks as an editorial assistant on a magazine and become indispensable. These days, with so many ‘assistant’ jobs being taken by interns, opportunities decrease. At the same time, it’s harder to compete when everybody else is interning. The trick is to keep your rights and your CV in mind, and avoid developing too much of a martyr complex while you seek paid work.
On an educational note: Londoners, I’ve also clocked this free event at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, this Saturday June 4th at Abney Public Hall, 2.30pm:
The Betrayal of Britain’s Youth
Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation will be joining the authors of Jilted Generation to discuss how difficult it is to get ahead now… I detect a political subtext to this talk and wonder if they’ll march out into the streets with placards afterwards. If I’ve piqued your interest, it may be worth dropping by.