My “stint” at several national newspapers left me with a large overdraft and hideous memories of hour-long inaudible dictaphone recordings, long afternoons of scouring Google news and frequent, pointless inbox-scouring sessions (it was always empty).
Having said that, however, I made contacts, managed to write by-lines, gained a deeper insight into the atmosphere of a hectic newsroom and developed my “interpersonal skills” as I was required to approach people on the street to gather public opinion on topical issues. I made many cups of coffee, but only because I volunteered. And, amazingly enough, I came out of that experience still wanting to be a journalist.
Internships, although seen as a “must-have” in many industries, come in varying forms. Although the current national minimum wage is £5.93 per hour for anyone of 21 years of age or over, interns are more often than not working for free. Some don’t even get travel expenses.
But whether the internship is paid or unpaid, surely an internship provides crucial work experience, industry knowledge, valuable contacts and a major boost for the CV?
That’s not enough, according to Alex Try, Co-Founder of Internsanonymous.co.uk, a blog which has, over the past two years, successfully recorded the ups and downs of paid and unpaid interns as they slowly trundle towards that first job. Speaking of unpaid work placements, Alex explains; “The only people who get ahead are those that can afford to get ahead. The knock-on effect regarding social mobility is obvious. What’s more, previously paid entry-level jobs are now being replaced by rolling three month unpaid internship schemes.”
The phenomenon of the unpaid disgruntled intern has struck a chord among thousands of graduates across the country, as they unite to complain about their dire experiences and work placements from hell. Their active forum at Interns Anonymous, buzzing with irritation, is a first of its kind, proving that students may put up with what they’re given for a few weeks or months, but that doesn’t mean they will keep quiet about it.
Alex Try spent a year applying for jobs after graduating and undertook a three month unpaid placement with a Westminster based Think Tank. He says; “What almost every intern who writes to us agrees on is that internships have become a pre-requisite for getting on that first step of the job ladder.”
But why is there such a discrepancy between different industries? While banking interns are only taken on, in most cases, to be paid and even possibly be offered a lucrative job at the end of it, why are those in the creative field struggling to make ends meet?
“Politics and the media are notorious for unpaid work,” Alex explains. “But now it’s very unlikely that even lawyers, accountants or graphic designers will make it without slaving away for months on end.”
It looked like things might change, however: as part of Labour’s manifesto under Ed Milliband, interns would receive payment. But then I met a Durham student who had spent six weeks interning for a major Labour MP last summer, who hadn’t even received travel expenses.
“The opportunity to work in the Westminster Village was truly valuable, with or without paid expenses,” he was quick to tell me.
This very same MP’s photograph is featured on the website Intern Aware, smiling and holding a signed document to recognise his commitment to their manifesto.
Ben Lyons, Co-Director of Intern Aware, a website which campaigns for the rights of unpaid interns, estimates that 99% of Parliamentary interns are unpaid. He told Palatinate; “It is highly disappointing if MPs who have promised to campaign to end unpaid internships don’t practice what they preach. Moreover, there are very damaging implications for British democracy if only the relatively well-off can afford to start careers in politics.”
With these facts in mind, Intern Aware are campaigning to end the exploitation of interns in Parliament, hoping thereby to ensure that it is not just those with money or high-up connections who receive the best opportunities.
So, in view of the national minimum wage laws, should the unpaid interns be fighting for their rights? Alex Try thinks we should.
“If you do more than shadowing for a few weeks, are relied upon to produce work, have set hours – and don’t get paid – then you can take your employer to court and claim back a wage. Sadly the competition for jobs is so fierce that only a small minority of interns are willing to complain.”
Nick Petrie, one of the co-founders of “Wannabe Hacks”, a blog which documents five young journalists’ attempts to crack the industry, laments how “intern” has become a dirty word.
“There is an assumption now that being an intern means you will be being taken advantage of – exploited and whilst not always true, I often wonder why companies bother to offer a scheme in the first place when they invest so little time and imagination into them. Having interned at a few different companies now it has become clear that you can never be quite sure what you will get.”
And according to Nick, there doesn’t seem to be much hope in the near future:
“This is a huge problem with a system that is already broken, not only are internships elitist and London centric but they lack quality and consistency of opportunity.”
Maybe, after all, there are other opportunities to showcase our talent and abilities? Nick agrees.
“Dig deep, find your inner entrepreneurial spirit and show people what you can do. Self created projects like Wannabe Hacks have taken me much further in life than any opportunity offered to me.”
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What do Durham students think?
I worked for Redken (part of L’Oréal UK ) as a marketing intern with a salary of £18,000 p.a. before taxes. The colleagues I worked with were incredibly down to earth and disproved the preconceptions I had about what kind of people a cosmetics giant might employ. I was one of the luckier interns in that I worked 9-5 (some arrived at 8am and stayed until 8pm) and was allowed to take an hour lunch break. Internships seem to vary wildly at L’Oréal. While some interns are given huge amounts of responsibility, others are not. Despite being a minority, some of my colleagues had a bad time working at L’Oréal because of constantly receiving huge amounts of work they couldn’t manage.
Anonymous, St Cuthbert’s Society
I have just sent off my application to try to secure a graduate placement at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle, which offers an unpaid 8 week programme of 20 hours per week. I think this placement would present me with a bolthole to network and get to know of the inner workings of the theatre. Should I be successful, I would happily give up my paid catering assistant post to give my full energy to pursuing something I will in the long term love so much more.
I got an internship with an Italian tourism company as part of my degree. It was a three-month successful experience, because I learnt a lot in translation and tourism management; nonetheless I got neither travel expenses nor a vague chance for any future job agreement. Hence young people get exploited and have to struggle even just to cope with their expenses.
I did a three-week unpaid “rare opportunity” internship with a casting agency in central London. I was handed a short film project on my first day and had to organise outreach programmes. I often stayed in the office past 6pm. I learnt that they just took on free interns every few weeks to help outwitheiprojects. Not really a rare opportunity!
Emily Canfor-Dumas, Hilde Bede
I did a two week internship over the Christmas holidays at the Sunday Times and thought it was really not worth it – I basically paid £80 in travelcards to sit at a desk doing nothing all day!
Sophia R. James
I completed an unpaid internship with M&C Saatchi, a top advertising agency. On the first day, I was assigned to an account handling team and given responsibility for creating a presentation comparing various newspaper adverts. I was given client exposure through meetings, spent a day at a recording studio and helped with their campaigns. Even if you have to pay for accommodation in London, anyone who wants a taste of advertising should apply with no reservation!
James B, St Cuthbert’s Society