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.’
‘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).