Archive for August, 2010

A little light slavery never did anyone any harm

Charmingly entitled ‘A little slavery does us all good’, Julia Margo’s article in the Sunday Times, 15th August, sets out the reasons why she thinks we need to increase the number of unpaid internships on offer, rather than get companies to pay their interns. She also entertains us by telling us about the time when she, an erstwhile intern, rocked up to work in a law firm wearing a crop top. Reading the article, I found myself overwhelmed by the quality of prose and incisive analysis on offer but I have to admit the following section is my out and out favourite:

‘While I count myself lucky to have been able to benefit from the inspiring work experience I had, policy wonks are immersed in debate about whether unpaid interns are in fact being exploited. To explore that claim, I spoke to one of the 450 unpaid interns who work in parliament: she said she had gained a lot and didn’t feel exploited at all.’

Oh wow, you spoke to one intern? And she didn’t feel exploited? Thank God for that, now we can be sure that no other interns anywhere in the world feel or are exploited. Obviously I don’t want to be associated with the ‘policy wonks’ (by the way Julia is Acting Director of the think-tank Demos, which is there to do what exactly? Policy wonk.) – but I would like to draw Ms Margo’s attention to the views of the more-than-one-intern who have emailed us and taken our surveys in the past two years. The following are a selection of quotes from our inexperienced, crop top wearing and, let’s be honest, moronic interns:

‘I feel the internship system in the UK is hardly human anymore’

‘I am now cold towards politics as a career’

‘it should be made illegal’

‘the company I worked for were making people redundant and stuffing interns into their positions’

‘I took the internship on the understanding that I would get a job but three months in it is clear that neither me nor the three interns I work with are going to be employed’

‘I learnt new skills but 5 months without pay and 2 months unemployed have made life pretty difficult’

‘this was a sad waste of time’

‘this is the worst thing I have done in my life! I work a 60 hour week, I am petrified of my boss who calls me lazy but I love parliament and I don’t want to quit in case it makes me look bad’

‘it was an utter waste of time’

‘I am sick of this shit’

OK you get the picture.

This isn’t to say that some internships don’t provide skills and don’t allow people to settle into a good work ethic but it saddens me to see unpaid work supported so whole heartedly by someone who should be able to see that economically, socially and even- dare I say it- morally, asking or expecting or allowing people to work for free is wrong.

Turning down the violin soundtrack and ignoring the yelps of bitter, resentful interns- from a practical standpoint work that doesn’t pay can only ever be a stopgap, it solves a problem in the short term, a bit like getting the Dutch kid who used his hand to stem a leak in a dyke to stand there forever instead of getting help. The kid’s arm would get tired and eventually Holland would be in a worse situation.

Let’s look at one of the main problems that internships are supposed to solve:

How do we solve youth unemployment in this country?

Encourage growth, more jobs.

I know I know it’s not as simple as that (maybe it is) but internships DO NOT get people jobs- they, in the words of a particularly witty intern, ‘prove that you’re not in prison’. Jobs get people jobs. Our survey of 249 interns found that 82% of them did not get a job in the organization they interned with. Frankly, we all know what the problem is- there are not enough jobs- we need to look at this issue straight in the eye, like Crocodile Dundee would look at a raging buffalo. Graduates are not getting as many jobs as they should because there are not enough jobs, NOT because they are particularly stupid, under-experienced or crop-top wearing.

You thought I was going to shut up now but it turns out I’m not. Here is another great bit from Julia’s 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 — they already invest a fair amount of staff time in them. Worse, paying interns would pollute the whole process and ultimately lead to internships being conflated with entry-level jobs, thus excluding exactly the kind of fresh graduates who benefit most from the opportunities. Who would pay a useless graduate when you can hire a recession-hit 25-year-old? I once worked in an organisation that paid its interns. As a result, we recruited through a formal process and took only those with prior experience.

 Re-e-wind:

Paying interns would pollute the whole process and ultimately lead to internships being conflated with entry level jobs’. But wait! Hold up! The trouble is, internships are already being conflated with entry-level jobs. So now they’re entry-level jobs without pay. I don’t normally approve of using one person’s experience as evidence of a general trend but what the hell, if Julia does it, so can I: ‘the company I worked for were making people redundant and stuffing interns into their positions’- said one of the interns who took our survey. 

And now my to address my particular bugbear, slagging off shitty graduates who can’t even make a bloody coffee for god’s sake:

Who would pay a useless graduate when you can hire a recession-hit 25-year-old?

Perhaps a company which, as well as not expecting a 25 year old with commensurate experience to take an entry-level job, would also like to invest in its employees, build up their skills base and create a competent, non-resentful workforce. I guess this is about principles and maybe a little bit about old-school Cadbury’s style corporate paternalism. 

Graduates may be depressingly eager to submit to whatever crap the government and the winds of fate throw at them (top up fees, more top up fees, internships, house prices higher than the moon) but they are not useless. Funnily enough, several paid interns we have talked to report a far better learning experience and a far more positive outcome for both them and the employer. Employers have also noticed an improvement in the quality of their intern’s work when they pay them: this is partly for obvious reasons (money grabbing graduates are only happy, effective workers when they can buy booze and drugs) and partly because employers care about money, so if they are spending it, they will make sure they teach the intern what they need to know, give the intern clear tasks or projects and help the intern throughout this process.

I once worked in an organisation that paid its interns. As a result, we recruited through a formal process and took only those with prior experience.

The experience conundrum is a difficult one but to pretend that it doesn’t apply to internships as well as jobs is madness. Let me take a look at w4mp, artsjobs, charity jobs and see if I can find an internship that demands experience. Oh look! I found two that specifically demand experience, here and here. The second organisation would like ‘someone with experience and/or a good understanding of the legal business, preferably with a law degree, interested in improving their understanding about the global legal community and to develop relationships in the industry’. And you can safely bet money that the huge demand for internships mean that despite a lack of explicit demand for experience, you will need experience to stick out from the crowd, unless of course your boyfriend’s mate works for a national newspaper.

‘The 2010 “non-graduate talent pool” (made up of 50% of the youth population) is, of course, extremely unlikely to find any work experience at all. But the government offers basic skills training to help them find rubbish jobs stacking boxes, so that’s okay.’

I am not one to stick up for government policy so why change the habit of a lifetime: patently two wrongs do not make a right. Unemployed school-leavers are facing the same conditions as the rest of us- this doesn’t mean I support the promotion of unpaid internships for graduates. Once again I am going to be incredibly demanding- jobs for all of us! All of us! We all want jobs and we want them now!

Now, I don’t pretend to be Miss Popularity but at least I know more people than Ms Margo who has never met anyone who cannot afford to work for nothing:

‘I have yet to meet a graduate who genuinely cannot afford to work for nothing: sleep on a friend’s floor and work in a bar in the evening, for goodness’ sake.’

In 5 seconds I can think of at least 5 people I know very well who wouldn’t have been able to afford an internship for more than a month, and I am not sure whether my parents (in my case, London based) would have been up for 5 of my friends sleeping on the sofa, for goodness’ sake! (By the way if you put a quaint expression of exasperation at the end of the sentence, people are more likely to suck it up and believe what you say) Also can I just ask why pubs should constantly be supporting graduates through their career search?

Thousands of graduates do this without complaint. As for non-graduates and those from poorer families, these are excluded not by cost but by the snobbery of employers.

Finally something I semi-agree with. But I can assure you that people are excluded from internships as a result of their cost and not living in London, as well as by the  snobbery of employers. The existence of one excluding factor does not preclude the existence of the other. Mind blowing, I know.

‘While debate rages on over whether unpaid interns are exploited or lucky, there is no question as to whether employers benefit: our economy is now secretly running on intern power. What we actually need to do is to increase the number of internships being offered, rather than make companies pay.’

If the economy is indeed secretly running on intern power (well it’s not such a secret in the case of Demos- the think-tank which Julia is currently directing) then what does that say about our society? That we value our young people so poorly we demand that they work for free, something that is anathema to most sane people; that whilst praying for the economy to grow, we are actively stunting it by restricting ‘thousands’ to a pittance that they will then spend on…Sainsbury’s basics beans? Just what is the point of increasing the number of internships when all that would lead to is graduates having to step up the number of internships they did to stand out? By increasing the expectation of unpaid work, all you do is discourage paid work, which is- let’s not forget- one of the pillars of a successful economy.

What do you think? Have I gone crazy or is Julia Margo crazy? (Judge for yourself- when we have sorted out rights and posted the article- Sunday Times needs a subscription and we don’t want to make them mad).

IPSA and interns

There is a really interesting post on Labourlist about the current experiences of interns in Parliament. A current intern, Darrell Goodliffe, describes how IPSA, the authority set up to regulate MPs finances, is making it difficult for interns to be paid.

I am a Communications and Research Intern for a sitting MP and earn nothing; in fact, I will be soon be faced with the choice between starvation and eviction because my MP cannot wade through the layers of bureaucracy and provide me with a wage.

Read the rest of the post here.

Internships during uni?

I have just completed a year in industry which is part of my course at the London College of Fashion. I worked seven days a week for a whole year, 5 days unpaid as an intern (expenses were paid) in London and 2 days at the weekend in retail so I could afford to live. I was also fortunate enough to have the support from my parents, although I know it was a huge struggle for them to help me out, and my other two sisters suffered, for my benefit, and without their help I would not have been able to do it.

I believe my internship was fantastically educational for me and was lucky enough to get to work at Paris and London Fashion Weeks and was much appreciated as one of the team. It was a very small high end company I worked for (only 3 of us full time), but I’m glad I did it. It was the most challenging year of my life, and I cried a lot of the year, but at the end of it I have a great deal of experience to show for it. I believe that once I have graduated, I would not do an unpaid internship again, as it was so hard, physically, emotionally and financially.

My main problem comes with the university itself. The university, in wanting to get their students into the top companies, fail to realise that they are actually undermining our futures by making deals with these companies. At the end of my final year, I hope that the expensive education I have paid for has not been a complete waste and that I will be able to get a well paid job a the end of it, but I have a feeling that it wont be so easy.

In undertaking the sandwich degree, we were told that we would have to pay half of our fees for the year. For this we were told we would get two visits from our tutors at uni and they would come to our company, speak to our manager and see how we were getting on and regularly email us to make sure everything was ok. Throughout my year in industry, I was only contacted once, not by my tutor but by the Fashion Business Resource Studio, to make sure things were going well. I had access to the university library, and had to write a report on my year and consequently dealt with the person marking this just once, with feedback on my proposal. I am also aware that it was the same for the majority of my classmates, and previous students. My point is that my university made promises to me which they did not keep and I had to pay more than £1500 for the pleasure. This year I was also only able to get half my student loan which was insignificant and this was the year I felt I needed the money the most.

I believe that if the companies are to change, then the universities themselves need to stop, (figuratively speaking), prostituting out their students, and make a written agreement with these companies so that these students cannot be exploited. I also think working for free for a certain period of time could be allowable, for example 3 months, but any longer and it becomes unreasonable. This is the only way it will change, and the students themselves need a better understanding of how working for free will affect them in the longrun.

A tale of two letters (to the Guardian)

First, Dr Helen Hill, Director of policy, London Chamber of Commerce and Industry wrote to the Guardian that a fear of litigation prevents many companies offering unpaid internships… which in turn would help the many thousands of young people stuck in unemployment. We would like to know where she got that idea from, and which companies are currently running scared.

At present, companies offering unpaid or expenses-only internships risk leaving themselves open to legal challenges, due to rules that stipulate that such work must be paid. While internships would ideally include a salary, often an unpaid or expenses-only basis is the only way firms can offer these valuable opportunities, particularly in the current economic climate. The risk of litigation means that firms are simply unable to continue hosting interns. While the pay requirement was intended to reduce inequality in accessing internships, this rule has backfired by leaving even more graduates languishing at home, becoming demotivated by the day.

But she does conclude with a sensible idea:

Practical steps by the government, such as establishing a new legal category of interns within employment law and allowing unpaid interns to claim jobseekers’ allowance, would enable firms to keep offering these opportunities, and ensure graduates get a key first foothold in the world of work.

It’s always seeked odd to us that you are unable to claim JSA during an internship. Job centres are useless and seek to think that if you are not spending 9-5 looking for work then you are taking them from a ride.

Martin Pennington of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services hits back:

The experience of many university careers services, however, is that some employers are nevertheless offering such internships with impunity, and that graduates, desperate to secure a toehold in the job market, are taking these up. Careers services wish to provide for their graduates by advertising such opportunities, but do not want to collude in lawbreaking. In a recent poll held by the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, the professional body for careers staff in 130 institutions, 85% thought the government should clamp down on unpaid internships.

Unpaid internships are not just exploitative of individuals, but also restrict social mobility as they are disproportionately difficult for graduates from lower socioeconomic groups to take up.

Good stats Martin and sound arguments. We will drop Dr Hill an email and find out which companies she is talking about, and report back.

Social Mobility Doc

We’ve been contacted by Tiger Aspect, who are making a documentary for BBC2 about access to the professions. As part of this they are exploring how people get their first job. This is what  the lovely Anna has to say to readers of this site:

I’d love to speak to any people who are interning right now, about their experiences. All conversations are confidential, and for research only.

I’m on 020 7529 9410 or email me on annallewellyn@tigeraspect.co.uk

Thanks, Anna

So please do get in touch.

The official role is ‘administration intern’

I am presently an intern for a religious charity. The official role is ‘administration intern’. It’s neither paid, nor expenses covered. At least my bosses are nice.

Most of the internship consists of independently creating administrative systems for the organisation. All of the tasks require initiative on my part. The staff are unable to help me when I have problems, as most of my issues are largely technical and I am by default the office techie. I’m left alone to solve the computer problems.

The staff are very friendly and it was also a bit of a surprise how ‘Abercrombie & Fitch’ everyone looks (i.e. glamorous/trendy 20-somethings). I wouldn’t have thought working in a charity meant you had to look like you worked at Vogue. I feel a bit intimidated that I don’t look like a model, and how exceptionally young the senior staff are. Maybe I just expected more people over 35 in senior positions. I’ve not been there long enough to determine if it’s an ageist company but grey haired people are completely absent.

On the first day I was given a cultural sensitivity document detailing do’s and don’ts that weren’t so obvious such as Kosher and Halal dietary rules as well customs about how casual physical touching is unusual for some conservative groups (so don’t offer to shake another’s hand or casually touch them on the shoulder unless they do it first). That helped me avoid any faux pas. Once an intern came in with some McDonalds, and everyone gave her a dirty look. I’m glad that wasn’t me! The best thing is the atmosphere and the bizarre conversations that go on among the staff about 80s and 90s nostalgia, interspersed with serious conversation about deadlines and public events.

This internship has given me my confidence back after such a long period of unemployment, I realise the worth of my skills in the office. I help with financial records, I solve discrepancies in databases and sometimes I have advised on how to organise their finances! My bosses give me a lot of responsibility and free reign. The downside of this is that I don’t have support if I have a problem. Until I’ve properly set up their administrative infrastructure, I’m almost indispensable, which begs the question of ‘why am I not paid?

Seven big brands (and Dragon’s Den star James Caan) face unpaid intern inquiry

A couple of fantastic posts over at the Graduate Fog website showing huge companies offering unpaid internships. If Tesco can’t afford to pay an intern what hope is there!


Interns Anonymous

We want this website to be a forum for interns to share their experiences and discuss the ethics of unpaid employment. Most importantly, we want this site to be a place where YOU can tell us your story.

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Interns Anonymous accept no responsibility for the contents of the blog, comments or any other content on this site that is posted or provided by third parties. This website is designed to act as a forum for interns to share experiences and opinions about their work, therefore, we will not censor opinions we do not agree with. The opinions stated in blog contributions do not represent those of Interns Anonymous. We disclaim all liability for such content to the fullest extent permitted by law. If you have any queries please email us.

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