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.

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10 Responses to “The dignity of interning”


  1. 1 Boyana Draganova 04/28/2011 at 3:52 pm

    James Howell is undoubtedly someone who knows nothing about why students go to universities. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone who wants to pay the current 9 000£ in tuition fees ‘to obtain knowledge for its own sake’ and anyone who does is in my eyes an a-hole. If anyone wanted to learn something so much they could easily do it by themselves considering the boundless availability of information nowadays. People go to universities with the hopes that the degree will help them get a decent job, whether because the degree will give them valuable skills or simply a prestigious name on their CV. None of these things are given to graduates these days as the education system is completely outdated giving no real practical skills whatsoever not to mention that employers no longer even care if you’ve graduated from a prestigious university. It sounds to me like James Howell has kissed a lot of intern-supervisors ass to get where he is, but I refuse to do the same simply because I believe there must be a better way to get ahead and doing useless internships is not one of them.

  2. 2 MeMe24 05/07/2011 at 8:32 pm

    I note that he doesn’t explain how he afforded to pay his rent and eat during his unpaid internships. I think its pretty easy to stop moaning about been unpaid when you/your parents are wealthy enough to pay your rent.

    As for graduates afraid of hard work, I have worked continuously since I graduated some years ago (with periods working 6/7 days a week). But no amount of hard work can change the impossibility of paying rent when working for free.

    I too sometimes get sick of hearing interns moan- but that’s because I’m too poor to even apply for unpaid internships. He obviously fails to grasp what its like to not have money.

  3. 4 Marcus How 05/13/2011 at 5:09 pm

    Besides what has already been pointed out, there are five problems with this article:

    1) The author doesn’t identify the different types of internships. For example, there are ‘work experience’ internships which, he is correct, provide the intern with a taste of an industry. These needn’t necessarily be paid. But then there are also ‘professional’ internships, where the intern systematically carries out tasks for an extended period of time (i.e. 2+ months). If, say, a low-level (paid) professional is performing a similar function, how can the author justify the ‘professional’ intern not being paid?

    2) No one is claiming that interns constitute the secret driving force of the economy (apart from the very dim).

    3) Would the author similarly damn ‘over-qualified’ interns for their frustrations? Is it right that an intern who has an MA, or even a PhD, should be unpaid? Many such cases exist. I’d like to know if the principle of paltry experience still stands here.

    4) Presumably the author, as a 2nd year student, gets a student loan — or perhaps even a grant — which technically constitutes a source of income. But how are graduate interns feasibly meant to fund unpaid, long-term internships?

    5) The author needs to explain why expecting some pay for the second type of internship is wanting it all “on a plate”.

    I couldn’t comment on the website on which it was originally published, but if it’s possible I’d very much appreciate it if the author could respond to my criticisms.

  4. 5 MB 05/25/2011 at 11:44 pm

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

  5. 6 Joey Doyle 05/27/2011 at 11:54 am

    James Howell makes me sick

  6. 7 Chantilly cream 05/27/2011 at 4:10 pm

    I think MB makes a valid point, but it does seem his article is making an impression whether good or not

  7. 10 anon 06/06/2011 at 4:57 pm

    I’ve been out of university for 3 years, I’ve been working abroad, something that is essential to progress in my field, the NGO sector. admittedly the NGO sector is unique in that paid positions are determined most often by external funding which often does not cover head quarter staff salaries and has suffered a great deal from the economic crisis. BUT to come back to the with a degree in my field, having worked in the positions of DIRECTOR of fundraising and volunteer coordinator and a stint as a research at the UN among other things and be offered Internships and volunteer position is insulting. My superiority is NOT unfounded, most people trying to get into the NGO fresh from university would kill for my experience. I’ve been told by lots of employers that I have fantastic experience and skills and then they turn around and offer me internships, they just don;t want to pay for my skills. I just started as a part time volunteer at an international organisation that focuses on labour rights. I had to do an application and an interview and a Spanish translation test and a budget skills test to get the position – something your average recent graduate would not have experience with and apparently I only just got the position. I just started last week but I’m doing REAL work, using my skills that I’ve spent time and a lot of energy building up through practical professional experience. I had to sign a contract even though its unpaid and I seriously doubt there’s a job at the end of it. Its depressing and demoralising but I’m doing it because experience is experience and I might as well do something while I bust my ass to find a job. The whole internship culture makes me feel physically sick and its beyond taking the piss. It’s not just recent graduates James who are having problems, its mid level career workers who are being exploited too.


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