Archive for April, 2011

The dignity of interning

Interesting article over at Spiked. I promise I’m not being sarcastic- the author James Howell describes IA as narcissistic and whining but he also brings up a classic point, which is that there is nothing wrong with ambition and struggle to get where you want. I agree with that- but I obviously disagree with most of the article- I do think he has conveniently ignored the fact that some internships are obviously replacement entry level jobs (for anecdotal evidence- here’s an example)  and the problems with the government seeing internships as a cure-all for youth unemployment, which they obviously aren’t. Article in full follows-

OK, it’s time to put interning in perspective

UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg probably thinks he is doing the less well-off a favour by having a go at the middle-class ‘monopoly’ on internships in competitive industries. But all he is really doing is feeding the woe-is-me attitude of recent graduates and sustaining the narcissistic whining of campaign groups such as Internocracy and Interns Anonymous. This isn’t what graduates need. Rather than excuses, what graduates need is to rise to the challenge.

You’d think, given much of the recent hysteria around internships, that if you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth then it’d be well nigh impossible to become an intern after graduating. Clegg’s recent assertion that internships are ‘almost the exclusive preserve of the sharp-elbowed and the well-connected’ came soon after revelations that the Tories auctioned off city internships at a Conservative Ball.

Even those who do get internships talk of the ‘monstrous exploitation’ that takes place amongst ‘slave labour graduates’. As one intern in the fashion industry puts it: ‘It’s slave labour, but I knew that if I didn’t take the role, it would go to someone else.’ 

Unsurprisingly, given such sentiments, a number of advocacy groups have recently emerged – often set up by young graduates – such as Interns Anonymous, Interns Aware and Internocracy. All of the groups deploy the same rhetoric of exploitation, cruelty and exclusion, and some routinely name and shame the ‘worst offenders’.

Internocracy, one of the most vocal intern campaign groups, is primarily lobbying for two things: firstly, that an intern’s background should be disregarded, and secondly that the internships must be good quality and are not just ‘executive tea duty’. The group asserts that it is technically ‘illegal’ not to pay interns. Becky Heath, CEO of Internocracy, says: ‘When such low numbers of young people and employers actually understand the rights interns have in the workplace, it’s no wonder that exploitation is rife in popular sectors.’

The Interns Anonymous website, meanwhile, exhibits a short documentary entitled Young, Talented and Working for Free. Featuring short interviews with former interns, the main – perhaps only – point it makes is that it is financially impossible to have an internship unless you are from a wealthy background.

There is a problem with this argument, however. It isn’t true. Without trying to sound holier-than-thou, I moved to London to study knowing full well that if I was to pursue a career as a journalist I would need to get internships and work experience. I don’t expect to leave university and get it all on a plate. And I don’t, as some newspapers are calling it, need a ‘Clegg up’ to help me realise my ambitions.

Furthermore, interns are not the modern-day proletariat, or the secret exploited masses that drive the British economy forward. Rather, internships are a way of gaining experience, contacts and a taste of working in that industry. As an intern, expecting anything apart from help and direction – in my case with my writing – is incredibly arrogant.

Companies invest considerable time and resources in training interns and, more often than not, don’t just draft in interns to save on staff costs. In continually calling for more privileges, groups like Interns Anonymous seem to struggle to get to grips with the idea that interns are interns, despite the fact that there’s currently an extremely competitive job market.

Let’s say that companies are forced to pay interns. If that happens, then these schemes simply cease to be internships; they will become something more akin to job creation or youth training schemes. Such paid positions, where they exist, will probably be looked upon as an onerous duty by employers and an opportunity to make money by young people. The things that are specific to interning – young people showing initiative and employers selecting and remembering those who make an impact – will be gone.

I have really been struck by interns’ sense of self-importance and complete lack of self-awareness. For example, one intern on the Interns Anonymous documentary states: ‘I don’t get any support from my parents; I’ve basically been hosting pub quizzes five nights a week. I go to my internship then I go to the pub, it’s been a real struggle.’

But is struggling to be successful such a bad thing? As spiked editor Brendan O’Neill has written recently, ‘working-class youth will fare far better fighting tooth and nail for opportunities in an unequal society than they would under the patronising poor-people promotion scheme drawn up by Clegg and his mates over caffè macchiatos’.

The reason for the woe-is-me attitude held by interns often stems from a sense of academic superiority that comes from studying for a degree. Little wonder that many interns tend to be of the opinion that they are genuine members of staff and that the survival of the company depends almost solely upon them.

This sense of superiority is unfounded. Many students wrongly see getting a degree as being a stepping stone into the workplace. This treats universities as little more than vocational training courses, in which people make an investment of time and money and become automatically irresistible in the job market. This instrumentalisation of higher education means that students mistakenly see their time at universities not as an opportunity to obtain knowledge for its own sake, whether in maths or philosophy, but rather to boost their employability.

When graduates realise that three years and a heap of monstrous debt has actually left them in a worse position than they might otherwise have been in, they seem to lapse into self-pity mode and demand that the adult world helps them out. Indeed at a recent Westminster Education Forum, a representative from Internocracy argued that it was unfair that many internship placements were concentrated in London and the South East. Her argument literally seems to be that businesses – and indeed the world – should revolve around people like her.

Young graduates need to stop whinging that they are ‘victims of the system’. They are nothing of the sort. Interns and groups like Internocracy and Interns Anonymous need to get over themselves, stop shying away from a bit of hard work and realise how much they have to learn from employers. They might then realise the true value of internships.

James Howell is a second-year student at Goldsmiths, University of London and a former spiked intern.

Letters from Ireland: not another fecking work placement programme

Here in Ireland, I recently completed an internship in a small government-funded arts centre and am now currently interning in the National Gallery in Ireland. In the latter place, I was required to work between 35 and 40 hours a week, drive back and forth from my home which is 30 miles each way, spend over €50 a week on petrol, work most Friday and Saturday nights yet was entitled to a mere €100 a month on transport, which I only received four times out of the eight months I managed to stay there! Nobody was terribly friendly the entire time I was there and instead I endured endless nights of rubbish poetry readings, crap singers, plays and performances attended by all those enjoying their nights out with their friends and family!

Ireland!

The scheme I was on is called a Work Placement Programme and is devised by Fás, an employment agency here in Ireland. This so-called scheme is to allow graduates and desperate jobseekers to work in their desired area to gain vital experience for full-time employment. What started out over a year ago as an interesting opportunity has turned greedy employers, keen to save a few bob into unkind, opportunistic gobshites, dumping excessive workloads on once-enthusiastic graduates. It has gone to shit with fellow peers in the same situation relaying stories of how some are getting grilled for up to an hour in interviews for these ‘opportunities’, others getting rejected for someone with more experience despite it being billed as a learning role and finding what can only be described as junior managerial roles advertised on the site. There is no regulation and it is complete and utter exploitation. I undertook the job to gain experience in my field as I’ve a BA in Fine Art and a HDip in Arts Management and so far, have received more P.F.O. (Please Fuck Off) letters and e-mails from paid jobs, I don’t know where to go! Thank God, my current internship is a great deal sounder, is with a fantastic institution and takes a mere two and half days a week, while at the same time I try and finish my Masters degree, in the hope that someone out there sees that I’ve done my time and is willing to part with their space change and pay me for once!

(and breathe!)

New Statesman – A second opinion

When I started, I knew I was already going to be out of pocket. My train fare exceeded what I would get back from the magazine’s “London travel expenses only” policy.  So I was actually paying £10 a day to come in and work. More fool me perhaps, but I thought experience at a national title would be worth the £300 + hit to my bank account.

The interns there had a number of time-consuming but important jobs. The dullest was uploading agency content to the NS website from someone in India who aggregated the contents of the main newspapers as they went live at 12-1am. This job took three editorial interns between 3-4 hours a day to do. It was drudgework. So a number of the articles on the NS website are there for next to nothing, because they pay an Indian a paltry wage to generate the words, which are pilfered from work done by another newspaper, then uploaded for free by an unpaid intern. All this from a left-wing magazine, which frequently calls for social justice, and rails against the iniquities of globalisation.

On I think five occasions I was made to come in at 6am in order to prepare the daily mail shot to subscribers, comprising a daily digest of articles. Again, no byline, no real supervision, but it was a necessary job and it required time, all to the benefit of the business.

Another task was transcription. All interviews while I was there were transcribed by editorial interns. Typing at a fair clip an interview might take an hour or two to get down. Of course, only a tiny fraction of the interview would be used in published copy. But given the resource was free it’s certainly a luxury for a journalist to have a pool of amanuenses to hand.

More generally, the experience itself was a bit of shambles from the first day, with no proper introductions, tour etc. The overriding impression is of a conveyor belt of free labour, doing all the churn work, so paid editorial staff can get on with producing the print copy.

And at the end no exit interview, no feedback, no tips for the future, just a “thanks, bye” and an offer that if I wanted to submit articles, they might publish them online  – (again unpaid).  It took around six weeks and several rounds of chasing to get my (partial) expenses reimbursed.

But it wasn’t all bad.  Editorial interns were invited to the main weekly editorial meeting. We also got to post an occasional article with a byline (online).  If you get a full-time job there, the NS seems like a great place to work. The team are generally very friendly, and happy to take a couple of minutes to talk something through.  But that’s about it.

My six weeks there were enough to put me off doing any further work experience. Handing more of my own money (and time) over to another media business to help keep them afloat is untenable and manifestly unfair.

I have no doubt that the NS is to a large extent financially reliant on interns.  My estimate from having talked to other interns is that around 1/3 of the editorial staff at any one time are unpaid. Not only do they readily do all the necessary drudgework, they help to depress the wages of paid journalists there. In the end only a small fraction of interns get a job.

How can the management of a publication with the New Statesman’s pedigree defend what they are doing? I can’t think of a better media organization to take a lead and start paying interns, or provide them with a sufficiently useful learning experience that they don’t have to.

New Statesman- have things changed?

I did a internship at the New Statesman in November 2008, it was unpaid, and we got our travel refunded.  While I was there I was given hardly any work to do, and neither was  my fellow intern.  It was soul destroyingly boring. I didn’t realise at the time, but there had just been a large number of redundancies and that is possibly why the office was so odd, quiet and depressed feeling.  The woman in charge of us was nice, but over worked and completely unsupported, and she was unwilling to delegate any work to the interns as I think she felt it would be more work to explain what she wanted then do it herself.  As there was no formal role, training or anything for interns, this happened a lot – with only the most menial jobs being given to us – and hardly any of them at that. Most of the day  I spent reading old copies of the New Statesman and despairing.

Social Mobility – rich platitudes as usual

A fellow campaigner with bags of public sector knowledge reminds us that ‘Whitehall’ is not where the problem lies…

One thing we should not let the Coalition do is confuse Whitehall with Government. We all know that within Parliament there is a saturation of people working as unpaid interns. Don’t let this terminology of ‘Whitehall’ lead you to believe that this practice will be stopped by the new social mobility initiative.

What the Coalition Government is proposing is an end to ‘informal’ internships within the Civil Service. Yes, you know, that place so rife with unpaid interns that erm… you might struggle to even track one down. From my few years’ experience in the Civil Service I can tell you that the one place unpaid internships are not expected as pre-requisite experience to gaining a job  is actually the Civil Service. I knew a couple of civil servants who had their 14 year old kids in to witness an office-environment during their schools’ work-experience schemes. They witnessed their parents’ often in un-glamorous roles, for a week, but this is hardly the world of prestigious social networking Clegg appears to have been referring to. The truth is ‘Whitehall’ is unpaid intern free.

The Civil Service has been at pains for many many years to recruit through ‘fair and open’ competition. Often to the extreme that previous work experience is put second place to the over-arching importance of answering competency based questions. In practice this means so long as you can show good examples of ‘communication’ or ‘organisational skills’ you would stand a good chance in a recruitment exercise. The Civil Service FastStream also offers a completely unbiased psychometric testing route for graduates showing exceptional verbal and numerical reasoning skills, followed by several rounds of testing to join the fast-track management scheme. Albeit only approximately 3% of applicants make it as far as actually securing a job, but nobody could argue that anywhere in the process is there inherent unfairness. Certainly there is nothing based on family connections, aside from the fact that a good education would hopefully have equipped you with the necessary skills. The only unfairness, and I would like to put my claim in, is that you have to be very good at psychometric testing.

The government is proposing to merely continue and extend a programme called Summer Diversity Internships, a paid internship scheme that existed under the previous administration, to give people from BAME groups and disabled people an opportunity to experience government work and gain transferrable skills. The government has announced that this scheme will now also be from people of socially disadvantaged backgrounds, and extend to people of younger age groups as well. This scheme has always paid interns and will continue to do so. In fact I remember asking a fellow young graduate, your average white British male, how he had got hold of this great well-paid opportunity, “dyslexia!” he exclaimed. Aside from him I also knew a very bright enthusiastic 17 year old. He came to our central government department via the Social Mobility Foundation who do great work in setting up internships for gifted young people from low-income backgrounds. When he spoke of aspirations to work in politics I advised him to seek MPs internships when he could, knowing the chances for someone with a lack of social connections were few and far-between. I also knew the irony of recommending unpaid work to someone from a low-income background. He was off to study Politics and History. I also knew that, having studied the same subject myself, I was about to be made redundant in the first wave of the public sector cuts and it was hard to be recommending a humanities degree in the current economic climate.

It seems a great irony to be encouraging internships in the very sector the government is currently shrinking, and in which an indefinite recruitment freeze still exists. The government is keen to stress that these savings have been at least £120m and have therefore contributed to paying off the deficit.

The government needs to start being honest with the youth of today-  real social change might occur if this internship scheme really referred to ‘Parliament.’


Internships at the heart of new social mobility policy

We’re obviously excited. Nick Clegg’s social mobility policy is taking unpaid internships to task. Articles in The Telegraph and The Guardian, as well as a report on the Today programme have underlined the importance of making sure internships are available to all, not just those whose parents can afford to put them up or ‘whisper in the ear’ of their mate at the ‘tennis club’ (does anyone actually do that?)

From the BBC:

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg says he wants to stop people getting on in life purely because of “who they know”.

As he launches the government’s social mobility strategy, Mr Clegg said no-one should get an unfair advantage because their parents have “met somebody at the tennis club or the golf club”.

He is planning to end all informal work placements in Whitehall – and will encourage businesses to do the same.

From the Telegraph:

He urged firms to make internships – often a vital gateway to a chosen career – more transparent and financially viable to the less well-off.

That meant covering out-of-pocket expenses or offering a wage.

Companies are being asked to sign a new compact including a commitment to ensuring fair access to internships.

Whitehall is set to lead the way, with Civil Service internships advertised formally from 2012.

This is fantastic. For an Internship campaign group this is surely the equivalent of Christmas. But we weren’t called ‘admirably bolshie’ for nothing. The devil will be in the detail. If I was Harriet Harman – due to question Clegg on this at 12 – I would question and ask:

Most importantly, if you read the report, detail on NMW is hazey at best.

We will continue to encourage employers to open up their employment methods, and we are asking business to offer internships openly and transparently and provide financial support to ensure fair access. This financial support could consist of either payment of at least the appropriate national minimum wage rate, or alternatively payment of reasonable out of pocket expenses in compliance with national minimum wage laws.

We want to improve understanding of the application of national minimum wage legislation to internships and ensure that employers comply with it. Where an individual is entitled to the minimum wage they should recieve it and we take failure to do so very seriously. We are updating our guidance on payment of work experience including internships to ensure that employers and individuals are clear about their rights and responsibilities. We will ensure enforcement of the national minimum wage continues to be effective, and resources are focused where they will have maximum impact. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are currently considering targeted enforcement in sectors where internships are commonplace, with a view to carrying out enforcement activity in 2011/12. Young people who feel they have had their minimum wage rights abused are encouraged to contact our confidential Pay and Work Rights Helpline on 0800 917 2368.

We hope this does not mean an update on guidance which allows employers to get out of paying interns minimum wage. The law as it stands is currently very clear. If you work set outs, doing set tasks then you are due minimum wage.

The Independent writes:

HM Revenue & Customs will launch a crackdown in professions such as law and journalism where work experience is commonplace, to ensure that people are paid the national minimum wage or receive out of pocket expenses.

Ironically – the Indy is currently being taken to court for not paying an intern. Crucially the or receive out of pocket expenses” offers an easy get out clause.

Anyway – lets not be picky just yet. Lets celebrate that internships are center stage in the news agenda for at least one day.

Lets not forget Nick Clegg has advertised for unpaid interns in the past…


Interns Anonymous

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