Exploited for experience?

Ok, so Semester One is almost over, meaning that the new year, new start mantra isn’t all that far away. With the inevitable ‘will lose half a stone’ and ‘will do course reading advance’ resolutions, the typical student will also be reminding themselves that it is time to get those future career plans in motion, and apply for the much-discussed summer internships. In a tough market where you often need previous experience to apply for a waitress or sales assistant, gaining experience before applying for graduate jobs has never been more crucial.

The best way to gain experience? That’s right, an internship. Whilst there is no guarantee of securing a job afterwards, you cannot deny it: internships are a good way in. They give us George Square / King’s Buildings bubble-dwellers an insight into the world after university. Helping us to figure out whether or not our chosen career paths will be right for us – and if we will be right for them. In addition to this, they are a massive boost for those graduate job applications.

However, not only are internship schemes notoriously competitive (at the Guardian newspaper, for example, a number of work experience placements are dedicated to those who have won them through award or bursary schemes) but controversies rage around the nature of internships and how they are paid, or not, as the case may be. The question has often been asked: are interns really a company’s source of young, intelligent slave labour?

It is important to consider that having unpaid internship schemes means that more companies are able to offer the opportunity, in contrast with internships where the firms have to pay. A number of internships are indeed paid, but it would be unrealistic for many companies to afford to do this, especially in the current economic climate. Julia Margo, journalist and Acting Director of Demos think-tank commented in a recent article, “The best way to ruin opportunities for thousands of graduates would be to insist that internships are paid. Employers would simply offer fewer placements if they had to pay.”

She has got a point, but this doesn’t change the harsh realities faced by many interns, for whom unpaid work is less than ideal. Many internships are based in London, where rent can be extortionate even by Edinburgh standards, and unless we happen to have family and friends living in the city (and even then are likely to have to cover our own public transport costs) there are few of us who can really afford to rent a place there for the summer, having blown the last of the student loan in a post-exams frenzy or spontaneous trip to Prague, Berlin or Malia.

Moreover, there are also interns, many of whom are represented on the online forum, Interns Anonymous, who claim to feel exploited, and that their work is being taken advantage of. Most interns put in long hours, working ‘just as hard’ as ordinary employees, but instead of receiving a pay-slip at the end of the month, they are riddled with anxiety over their rapidly encroaching overdraft limit. Is it really fair to say that some employers take advantage of their need to gain experience by giving them a summer placement on a cheap labour merry-go-round?

This opinion is widely shared: in July, a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research and youth-led social enterprise Internocracy condemned most unpaid internships, deeming them ‘illegal’. The report asserted the obligation of private companies to treat their interns as ‘workers’, paying them the national minimum wage. This is due to the nature of most modern internships – they rarely involve merely shadowing, and almost always have set hours, duties and obligations. Moreover, David Willetts, the Conservative Minister for Universities and Science has been reported to have said: “The exploitation of interns is unacceptable and employment legislation must not be breached”.
In an interview with Prospects graduate career service, Heather Collier, director of NCWE (National Council for Work Experience) stated that: “The main thing is for graduates not to allow themselves to be exploited. They should establish a time limit for the internship, get as much as they can from it, network for contacts and opportunities and when it is no longer mutually equitable i.e. fair to both parties, they should move on and use what they now have to look for the next internship or job. We recommend that if a graduate is adding value to a company they should at least pay the minimum wage but whether the intern is ‘a worker’ is for the employer to decide.”

Nevertheless, it is a seemingly common assumption that interns may be treated less than perfectly. Whilst some internships will enable you to undertake challenging and professionally relevant tasks, you must be fully prepared for the possibility of spending the majority of any internship or work experience placement running around making coffee for your superiors. When interviewing a second year student to see what her expectations of an internship are, she answers: ‘In all likelihood, I’ll be doing coffee runs, photocopying, and all the boring jobs that no one else wants to do. And be getting paid peanuts for it”. When I ask whether or not she thinks it is worth it, she replies: “Yes, I think it is. It gives you a bit of an insight into what the job involves. Some internships are better – if it’s a well-organised scheme, it’s definitely worth doing, but if you’re just filing and you’re not getting paid, it’s of limited use, although it is something to put on your CV.”

It is true; you cannot deny that internships look great on your CV. This is supported by a growing trend in the use of intern agencies abroad, which ensure that your job applications will stand out for the crowd… if you are willing to pay. Such placement schemes operate all over the world, and provide internships in many different sectors, including business, finance, media, healthcare and law.  Unfortunately, they come at a cost – and a rather steep one at that. InternOptions provides 10-26 weeks unpaid internships in Australia and New Zealand, starting at the small sum of £800. However, this does not include flights, insurance, accommodation or living costs, and hence the pennies will soon add up. Stand Out summer internships in Sydney will set you back at least £3700 if you want a single room, whilst with gap year agency Projects Abroad offers a month-long law internship in Togo for £1500 and business and finance work experience in South Africa starting at £1695. However, none of these figures include flights, insurance, visas or living costs, so regardless of how fantastic it might look on your CV, a placement abroad is going to cost you. And you might just be getting coffee.

So are internships worth all the unpaid hassle? Quite frankly, I would answer with an unequivocal ‘yes’. We might not like the fact that the tasks assigned to us may not always seem relevant. We might not think it is fair that interns are often unpaid. But that is not about to stop me applying for internship placements, and I am quite certain that I am not alone in that. At the end of the day, internships – even if they do lead to us being over-worked and underpaid – are experience in our chosen field. And with the exception of the fortunate few with prearranged placement as part of their degree, we have to question how else we would get the experience we need. Grumble all you like, coffee-fetchers, but be grateful for that little bit extra on your CV. It might mean that one day, someone is fetching the coffee for you instead.

[Originally published 12/12/2010 http://www.studentnewspaper.org/features/464-exploration-for-experience]

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