Work experience and internships: the price of not getting paid

As I am nearing the ominous end of my £27k+ education, ‘work experience’ and ‘internship’ have become buzzwords and are incessantly asserted as the real gateways into a job. As the average number of placements completed before paid employment is (a shocking) seven, and 36% of graduate jobs taken by previous interns, internships have become embodiments of cultural capital.

The importance of work experience is growing to almost becoming fetishized as young people have even begun to pay for the ‘privilege’ of working for free. The Intern Group offers placements with accommodation in cities around the world. A six-week summer experience in London costs just shy of £4,000, whilst the same amount of time in Hong Kong is a cool $38,500.

There is, of course, a more promising side with tech giants such as Facebook offering as much as $8000 per month for the brightest recruits. But for those with their heads not in the Cloud, the reality of the creative industries in particular is riddled with unpaid opportunities. With many being full-time and lasting anywhere from a few weeks to a year, the financial implications are considerable. You need to bankroll your rent, food and often even your commute.

piggy bank
(Image credit: “Broken Piggy Bank” (CC0 1.0) by George Hodan)

The emphasis also seems to be on major companies, as told to Cardiff University students by a visiting Head of Recruitment for a prominent publishing house. These carry more weight on a CV than smaller organisations, revealing internships as not only an increasingly branded but also a predominantly London-centric practice.

For those without family nearby, even an additional part-time job is unlikely to cover the £1000 monthly costs (plus the price of the sanity you are likely to lose working such hours). Whilst it could be seen as an investment similar to education that will eventually open doors to opportunities that will retrospectively pay for the keys to these doors, it is considered supplementary, not an alternative. The financial outlay is immediate and the only loan you can hope for is from the Bank of Mum and Dad.

Money aside for a moment, the assumption so far is that you acquire valuable knowledge. But what of those placements where you are relegated to coffee making and menial admin if anything at all? You are not out of pocket for new skills that boost your CV in any meaningful way other than extra padding. My own 2-week work experience at a global broadcaster was just that. As I was consistently asking for tasks in a placement that lacked any structure (making tea would have been a welcome undertaking at this point), I left feeling that the only benefit was that it made for a cool story.

internship by Sean MacEntee, on Flickr
(Image credit: “internship” (CC BY 2.0) by Sean MacEntee)

Networking, of course, is hailed as the biggest benefit regardless of the responsibilities. You must get yourself noticed in the hope of someone remembering you when further opportunities arise. But unlike internships where practical skills are acquired, there is no guarantee of added value.

Networking by Sean MacEntee, on Flickr
(Image credit: “Networking” (CC BY 2.0) by Sean MacEntee)
With the costs involved, unpaid placements seem at best a gamble unless the specifics are very clear beforehand. Yet, students and graduates continue to flock at opportunities as they continue to be sold as a measure of dedication to the chosen career.

However, the main implications are for social mobility. The media in particular are increasingly characterised by this ‘try before you buy’ mentality, only the product here is you. Yet, access is progressively linked to economic capital and those unable to intern for free are likely to find themselves priced out of some career routes.

Whilst there have been calls for a ban on unpaid internships, this is yet to come to fruition. But unless the imbalance is improved, unpaid internships will not only intensify the creative industries as classist, but ultimately threaten the meritocracy that makes up their integrity.

Featured image credit:
Money” (CC BY 2.0) by thethreesisters