This summer I undertook an internship with digital agency Freestyle Interactive. Much is said about the value of internships as it becomes more accepted that some sort of experience is vital for increasing a persons job prospects. I read Graham Snowdon’s article on internships this morning I felt that it was only right that as a recent interner (my own phrase) I stick my nose into the discussion…. So here goes.
Me and my fellow interns candidates with some Freestyle staff
In essence an internship offers work for experience rather than wage. But when does the pursuit of experience lead to exploitation? And to what extent is the internship culture barring those who cannot afford to work for free from the labour market?
I’m 23 and aspire to a career in advertising. I am under no illusions as to the difficulty of my task and how hard I will have to work to get there. We live in a world where I am numerous and the opportunities are few. To gain one of the ‘golden tickets’ I must stand out in a crowd of equally qualified and ambitious people (with lots of pretty letters after their name)… I have therefore been very fortunate in being selected for an internship at Freestyle Interactive in their Content, Search & Social team. Here I am gaining practical experience and exposure to the digital marketing industry whilst making me more attractive to potential employers.
An internship in its most positive light will provide invaluable experience and insight into an industry and also pay the graduate a wage that allows them to live. Yet these internships are few and far between, most are unpaid roles offering little in the way of experience or insight. Ross Perlin’s book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy,details graduates falling into what he describes as a “cycle of exploitation.”
There have been a large number of reports, some of which are included in Perlin’s book, where interns have been threatened, sexually harassed and prevented from telling their story. Why do these organizations act in such away? Because they can. Graduates are seen as replaceable commodities that can be used with the promise of a potential job and ultimately discarded when no longer required. Moreover, as temporary workers, interns have little means to defend themselves. Speak up and lose your window to paid employment or sit and take the abuse. It’s a catch 22.
The other side effect of the unpaid internship is the creation of a two tiered system based on wealth. Those with a strong financial structure through family members are more likely to be in a position to take internships and thus be a step ahead in the race for a job. There is no conceivable way in which I could afford to travel the 140 miles round trip if my internship was unpaid. Yet these opportunities are so rare and sought after travelling is often a requirement.
This problem is exacerbated by the worrying trend of auctioning internships to the highest bidder. This has been performed in the USA for the likes of Richard Branson costing £53,000 and even closer to home a Tory fundraiser auctioned a number of internships making £15,000.
I must now state that I am very fortunate at Freestyle. I have been involved in live projects from my first day, varying from helping in the development of pitches to the implementation of ongoing SEO and community management projects. It is a steep learning curve and a challenge (as it should be) and has very much affirmed my own career goals and desires. To a young person leaving university an internship offers an invaluable insight into an industry. It also shows us exactly how hard we have to work to attain success, which can only be a motivating factor. The worry comes when companies stop seeing internships as a way to nurture talent but as a cheap method to fill administrative rolls. It must be the role of the government to ensure that young people are not having their desire to become ‘more employable’ exploited into working for free.