I’ve done loads of stuff. I’ve interviewed the British energy minister, evaluated an human rights organisation’s entire year of work for senior directors, written a scoop on the U.S. attorney general and his views on Guantanamo prisoners, worked in Siberia, set up a citywide youth organisation, run a graduate recruitment scheme and taken a TV crew to London Fashion Week. And I’ve done it all for paid jobs – I’ve been lucky and landed some great work.
I know exactly what work I want to do now, and I’ve picked up a lot of the skills from other jobs in other sectors, and even one in the same sector at admin level. But I can’t get into this work because I don’t have experience doing the exact same job. The only way to get this experience, it seems, it to do an internship, and that I can’t afford.
I’ve worked where interns provide absolutely crucial help and I think the idea is great. Charities get help at low cost, young people get experience, and some I’ve worked with were just fantastic. Even if the opportunity is limited to those whose parents pay them through, those who can live with family in London and not pay rent, or those who’ve had the foresight to save enough money from previous work.
Sometimes these opportunities are even more limited: at one charity I worked for, staff felt obliged to grant work experience to the children or relations of donors, taking up a spot usually subject to open and strong competition, and generally dreaded having to do so. I heard tales of one such intern spending his time in loud mobile phone conversations, often about dealing drugs to friends. Some staff told me they felt like glorified babysitters.
As a journalist at a very equitable and diverse organisation, where equal opportunities hiring policies were pedantic to the extreme, the lack of a formalised system meant that the work experience kids I met and had to explain my job to were almost always friends and family of people in other departments. I complained to my boss, who sympathised. And he then introduced me to his sixth-former son, who was spending a few weeks in the legal department.
The problem is perhaps not internships – I don’t think they should necessarily be paid, as many charities could not afford it. My problem is the narrow requirements of jobs in Westminster and in charities that demand very specific experience that’s almost impossible to obtain outside an internship. I think organisations need to step back and consider the social equity aspect of getting into these jobs. It wouldn’t be that hard to take on candidates with a lot of potential and give them a bit of training and support.