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Are unpaid internships fair?

Hannah Smithson asks whether unpaid internships are more about giving students skills for the future, or companies labour for free.

I have a dilemma. I have been asked to do an extra week of work experience at a publishing house which is home to some of my favourite magazines. I have been interning here for two weeks now and so far, so great! I have been working closely with editors and deputy editors, taking knowledge, advice and experience on board and have made some invaluable contacts. It has been such amazing experience but the problem is… I just can’t afford it anymore!

I would love to be able to work the entire summer at top media institutes unpaid but it just isn’t realistic. And I feel like one of the lucky ones. I’ve stayed with my sister in London, kipped on friends sofas and am currently staying with my auntie and uncle in Colchester, fully relying on friends and family to put me up while I carry out compulsory work experience for my multimedia journalism degree. The university even insist it must be unpaid yet provide no extra funding for you. So far, I feel like the sacrifice of my part-time job has been worth it as it has been the best work placement I’ve been on.

Are good placements hard to find?

But not all placements are as lovely as this one. Speaking to some fellow students, it seems it is not always that easy.

With over a million young people unemployed including a rising number of NEETs and graduates that finish university who can’t find work, internships seem like the next best alternative for thousands of well-qualified, competing young people. But many of them are unpaid, based in the not-so-cheap capital city and have you making tea for the entire summer.

The student dilemma

Tal Dekel, 20, a student from Bournemouth said this is a topic in her mind right now as she searches for work experience placements this summer. Tal’s problem is that she is being offered the work but she isn’t able to afford to do long placements in London, far from home and with no place to stay or extra funding.

‘I'm not lucky enough to be able to live off funding from my parents or live in London, so I’ve had to go for less time, which means less experience and even then I'm having to take out loans and borrow money to do it.’

Joshua Saunders, 21, from Birmingham, sees it as a student dilemma:

‘It's a difficult standoff, being a student. On one side you are ultimately grateful for the chance of an internship but on the other you're free labour.

‘Companies providing placements need to ensure they are able to benefit the individual as well as them being a useful pair of unpaid hands. Whether it be a work offer, another placement, contacts or just another reference on the CV, internships need to work both ways.’

Ben Protheroe, 23, said he interned at a place for an astounding seven months where he only was paid travel expenses. ‘But I got a job out of it in the end- determination’, he said.

The professional perspective

Hot Radio presenter, Paul Stevens, has been a professional journalist for 20 years and says he is now interning for the second time 20 years later for his new career in teaching. He tells of how tough but essential interning can be.

‘I left university in 1986 and it was very similar to now, there was a recession going on and jobs were scarce. I did all sorts of things when I left and it took me the better part of three years to get a foothold in a job in journalism that I wanted and in the end that was down to work experience.

‘I think internships work both ways because you get to find out whether you’re cut out for the job and the employer gets to find out if they think you’re up to the job.

‘I do sympathise enormously with your generation, I can well understand students saying that it’s just not technically feasible and in some ways interning is quite discriminatory against those people who don’t have those resources to carry out what can be indefinite interning. If only the people with extra resources or the bank of mum and dad can actually afford to intern then it’s not an even playing field for everybody – that’s the problem. You can have tonnes of potential but if you’re not from a fairly well off background it can be very difficult.

‘There are more opportunities as a graduate but as an undergraduate there are certainly things you can do in your summer vacations. The advice to students may well be – get you’re interning done whilst you’re studying.

‘I’ve done work experience and whilst working as a professional journalist I have supervised work experience students at the paper and now at the radio station. So there is a commitment on behalf of the employer to commit staffing hours to this, you can’t just take people on and stick them in a corner. The idea is to get people to do real work where they learn something and they contribute something to the organisation.

Paul has one invaluable piece of advice for anyone trying to break into the media industry.

‘You have to show evidence that you are somebody worth investing in. That evidence might be an internship. Or that evidence might be a hobby that you’ve done for a longer period of time. In this day and age when almost 50% of people in their early 20s have got a degree you are up against every other person. In order to stand out from the next person you need evidence to say this is what I have that they haven’t and you just can never start too early with that sort of thing.

‘I’ve just finished interning for the second time in my life 30 years later. I interned for my journalism job and I effectively interned to get my teaching qualification. In the end it’s got to be done. I’ve been to university twice and I’ve interned a lot back in my 20’s and now in my 40s. The job for life culture is over.’

Who benefits most?

So, should young people be paid for work experience or is it fair game for companies to use free labour as long as the eager hopefuls can associate themselves with their name in future? Perhaps, as we double dip into recession, graduates will end up interning for longer and with increasing job losses - free labour seems to be many companies’ answer. Is it only the wealthier privileged young people that can benefit from internships? The class barrier is being knocked down at university entry level, but it is still there after graduation.

I can safely say that I have benefitted from all the unpaid work experience I have been lucky enough to get but realise perhaps that it is the exploited ones that are in fact the lucky ones in this game! And as for my dilemma, unfortunately the cash in my pocket dictates that I’ll unwillingly be going home on Friday afternoon…

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