Unpaid internships: An ideal world?

Keri Hudson's victory...the first step on the road to an ideal world?

Keri Hudson's victory...the first step on the road to an ideal world?

The news that an unpaid intern has forced her former ‘employers’ to pay for six weeks’ work has been hailed by some as a ‘court victory’. It seems, at first glance, to point to a new era of would-be interns fighting back against employers who take them for granted and who make them work without pay or prospects. It seems like the step in the right direction, towards a fairer society. But, although that all sounds wonderful in principle, in reality the entire affair actually makes me feel more than a little uneasy.

The successfully-sued company, review website My Village.com, allegedly broke the contract agreed with its intern, Keri Hudson, and expected her to manage interns, while working all day on the firm’s website without training or, so it has been reported, ‘the expected pay’, for six weeks. And while her tenacity at standing up for herself in a situation she deems unfair is admirable, the victory she has apparently scored in taking her former employer to account may, in fact, not be quite so triumphant for the rest of us.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that not paying people for proper work is acceptable. It isn’t. Nor is breaking a pre-agreed contract that stipulates that you will be paid, as Hudson’s reportedly did. But far from being a clear signal to all intern employers, Hudson’s actions, and the decision handed down in response, actually hold seriously ominous implications for all current and future seekers of media positions in today’s pathetic economic climate.

Working for free

Trying to get a job, any job, big or small, in publishing and the media is tough. I know, I’ve been there, spoken to many near and far who’ve been there, and know many who still are. A good degree, even from the top five, nay, two, Universities in the country, count for very little if your work experience is nil. You can blog and tweet with the best of them, but unless you know someone in a prime position, possess the networking or writing skills of a hypnotising wizard (or both), or are simply very, very lucky, you ain’t getting a permanent foot in any door anywhere without work experience. And even then it’s not for certain. Therein lies the problem. Far from making it easier for potential interns, in making internships suddenly something for which companies must shell out, and even risk being taken to court for, Hudson’s case has just set a precedent for making it tougher.

It is not news that getting into this industry (whether your aim is to be a writer, editor or anything in between) is difficult. There are few decent positions available to graduates, the competition for those that are advertised in the public domain is fierce, many applicants have not just undergraduate degrees but also possess prestigious (and often very expensive) MAs, and reams and reams of industry experience, blogosphere and social networking presence is paramount. Save a few rare exceptions, paid work experience and internships are part of the culture. A YouGov survey for campaign group Internocracy found that 21% of people who had done internships weren’t paid in any way for their time – and it certainly seems to be the case that everywhere you look, nearly everyone you talk to answers with the same refrain: ‘to get anywhere, you need to be willing to work for free’.

This is, in itself, fraught with difficulties. It’s no surprise that few people can afford to work for free in the first place, and even if you can live with parents, they need to be living near a big city (read, London) to make them anywhere near useful as a base from which to commute to proper, worthwhile work. They also need to be willing and able to support their very over-educated adult offspring throughout what could be months and months of seemingly-thankless work experience placements, for little more, if you’re lucky, than the daily price of half a Prêt lunch and a single Tube ticket home. And while some may be happy to let their kids live at home without paying a penny, travel around the globe on their father’s fare in-between times, and do internship after internship ad infinitum without much hope of an actual position on the companies’ inevitably already-stretched pay rolls, for others, the patience will run out before the cash does. For many, many more, both will. That happened to me, and I was one of the lucky ones who could afford to dip a toe into the deceptively glossy pools of unpaid work in the first place (before, after nearly seven long months of near-constant work experience, finally securing a job in a slightly different area to that which I’d been aiming, but for which my unpaid labours had undoubtedly helped).

Unpaid internships: inherently unfair

Nick Clegg wants internships to become more accessible

Nick Clegg wants internships to become more accessible

Which is why Hudson’s actions shouldn’t, for all their misadventure, be dismissed out of hand, and why they’ve been heralded by some as the beginning of a new, fairer culture, the likes of which Nick Clegg would undoubtedly dream of seeing. Internships are inherently unfair. They foster a culture that sees graduates as dispensable and unworthy of any real, long-term respect, as, if money or time runs out, there’ll be someone else ready and waiting to take that place. Internships price out all but the richest, most middle-class and most-connected of candidates, and must surely keep many media positions out of reach of the vast majority of the population. The same YouGov survey found that 40% of people who had thought about doing internships had changed their mind because of the cost involved, and an additional 39% who were offered an internship said that couldn’t actually take the position, for the same reason.

And although I myself was able to do several months’ worth of placements, I can still see how Hudson may have a point when it comes to taking on her employer for the treatment she received. When I was working in all those different offices, I resented the feeling that I was one in a long line of well-qualified, bright graduates with a real desire to work in the industry, but whose work, however halting at first, was extremely unlikely to be deemed worthy of payment, and probably wasn’t going to get me any kind of useful remunerated position, even though, for much of the workday, I was being expected to produce real work at professional standards. For the most part, in their defence, my would-be employers, despite being harangued by someone who clearly only had a month’s experience on that particular job at best, were (largely) polite and helpful, offering bits of constructive criticism as I learned to understand the nuts and bolts of what I was doing before the time came for me to leave again. But, sadly, one cannot live on helpful hints, travel expenses and lunch allowances alone, especially in London.

So, Keri Hudson, somewhat understandably, after six weeks’ internship without even lunch money, with little instruction and the responsibility of working productively with six other interns, decided she had had enough. She took her employers to court and successfully demanded that they pay for the full-time hours she had put in.

Unpaid internships: The case for the defence

But for all their disadvantages, unpaid work experience placements and internships are the reality of the industry today. And, if you can get them, make the most of them, remain polite and helpful, stay organised, and appear willing to learn, stick to deadlines and turn in good work, they can be extremely useful. They give those who make the most of them the confidence to walk into any office, the adaptability to get stuck in to whatever the working day might throw at you, the ability to think on your feet, and, if you’re lucky, the skills and contacts needed to finally clinch that job. If nothing else, they prove that you have willingness to learn and a drive to work in the industry. They can feel frequently boring and often, to quote one of my dearest, and most work-experienced friends, seem like ‘monkey work’, but without the placements, your horizon looks even more limited than with. That many of them do not lead to permanent positions is extremely frustrating and potentially damaging to your future prospects. That the amount of time you need to rack up before seemingly endless, financially straitened days turn into concrete months that look acceptable on the CVs you’re hurriedly trying to send out to anyone relevant with an email address, is unbelievably trying. And the fact that you’re effectively paying for the privilege, when so many people can’t even begin to consider it, makes you feel like you should be grateful for the opportunity when really, it’s often barely legal exploitation – or, to put it in the (euphemistic, I’ll admit) vernacular, taking the Michael.

David Cameron's defence of unpaid internships shouldn't stand...but does

David Cameron's defence of unpaid internships shouldn't stand...but does

That David Cameron, who, as Prime Minister, should be legislating for a fairer, more equal society representative of the population as a whole, no matter what his political or personal background, feels comfortable standing up in Parliament to announce that he has little problem with well-connected families sending their offspring into their parents’ firms for unending unpaid jaunts is completely deplorable, but, unfortunately, it is much more representative, sadly pragmatic view of the media industry today than Nick Clegg’s idealised vision. Well-connected, better off parents, are, in the main, always going to support their kids in the best opportunities possible – expecting them to do anything else is completely unrealistic. But until the need for such elusive opportunities shifts, until the economy picks up, and proper starting jobs start to become available to more graduates and young people, until the Internet succeeds in completely revolutionising the way in which journalists and media workers find employment and do business, until the media industries fully adjust to the potential of the online arena, work experience and internships will remain competitively indispensable for the best positions. Hudson’s cause is admirable but ultimately flawed.

If companies, already battening down the hatches, ‘streamlining’ departments, subsuming hitherto separate jobs into single ones and freezing salaries, start to think that asking for interns is tantamount of inviting trouble over for tea, they will simply close the drawbridge completely. Hudson and her lawyers may believe that their case’s outcome is a clear and long-overdue sign to companies that unpaid internships are no longer acceptable, and they’re absolutely right. But, unfortunately for all the well-qualified, honest people out there just trying to make a living, it is a universal truth that most companies are money-making organisations, not humanitarian charities giving opportunities to the most deserving.

If media firms begin to believe that interns, far from being the willing recipients of their staff’s superior knowledge, will instead demand payment for what is effectively a superfluous, entry-level role that pretty much anyone with a half-decent degree and an hour on a Mac could probably figure out, they simply won’t offer any roles to them. They’ll ask already-permanent staff to take on more work, and shut the door on the vast majority of a whole new generation.

This over that...does not feel good

This over that...not the best idea

Ideally, all internships would be paid. Interns would eagerly bound into the new workplace, happy and secure in the knowledge that their work is being valued in the same way as everyone else’s, and that they will have enough to cover food, travel, rent and the odd after-work drink when the end of the month swings around. They’d be more productive, more diverse, more interesting, more able to gain decent experience, become more of an asset to the companies they frequent, become a better part of the team, and, in similarly utopic fashion, find suitable jobs within an industry they’d have had time to get to know, and gladly pass the relay baton on to the next generation of graduates. To suggest anything otherwise feels like kicking a puppy (or, if you will, throwing coffee over your keyboard).

But this, in case you hadn’t noticed, isn’t an ideal world. I don’t know what the solution is, but, to revive that ancient and forgotten relic of a phrase, I agree with Nick. I don’t think it’s right that companies think they can fill gaps in their departments with endless rounds of free labour, I don’t think it’s okay for media jobs to be frequented only by middle-class affluent kids whose parents could afford to pay their way, nor, on the flipside, do I think it’s fine for the same kids to be vilified because, through no fault of their own, and doing only what anyone else in their position would do, they were able to grasp an opportunity that others weren’t accorded. And I don’t think it’s fair that Keri Hudson had to work for six weeks without pay when she was promised it. But I do know that doing no work experience at all, ever, in today’s media industry, because companies are too scared and too broke to give you a chance, would be far, far, far worse.

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