Unpaid internships – Are they worth it or are you worth more? Hayley Simpson and Kim Heinz speak to Kingston graduates to find out. 

By Hayley Simpson and Kim Heinz

Interns Anonymous

By Hayley Simpson and Kim Heinz

Tara McGinley, a former KU student, was a shell of the person she was when she graduated last year, high on hope and ambition and ready to take on London’s PR industry. She was fed up and struggling to make ends meet in an unpaid internship that wasn’t going anywhere.

Tara, who studied English lit and drama, is not alone with her sense of disappointment and her story will resonate with many university graduates. With recent figures showing young unemployment at close to one million and competition for jobs greater than ever, graduates are now expected to have months, even years, of work experience on their CVs in order to stand out to employers.

When considering that the average UK student will leave university with almost £43,000 of debt, is this exploitation and slave labour or a necessary rite of passage to gain experience and get to where we want to be?

The creative, media and fashion industries have long been notorious for expecting keen young interns to work themselves into the ground for little or no financial recognition.

“My old boss was positively evil to me”

It is not uncommon for entry level positions to have a minimum of three to four years of work experience as a pre requisite for applying. Why then, do interns often get treated like they are just the company dogsbody or that they are simply in the way? A Kingston graduate, who wishes to remain anonymous, has spoken about his treatment at a well known fashion house in London.

“My old boss was positively evil to me on my most recent internship. She swore, ignored and screamed at me on many an occasion simply because that was the sort of person she was. She made my day to day life hell. That’s one thing I’ve never understood about internships. You work for free, and companies seem to forget that you are doing them a favour first and foremost, especially when they rely on so many to keep the business running. I am almost certain, without any doubt that the fashion industry would collapse without interns. During my time at one particular fashion house there were 24 interns in ration to 6 paid staff. We, as interns, were there later than the paid members of staff and given double the work load.”

A distinction needs to be made between different types of internships. There are short periods of work experience, where a company will offer insight and experience of what it is like to work there. Or there are longer internships, where someone will be expected to work for free but still fulfil the responsibilities of a paid member of staff.

Fairer access

The latter happened to Adrian, a History and Politics graduate, who interned at a local history centre.  “Many employers simply believe that calling someone an ‘intern’ relieves them of all employment obligations. I very often had to work long hours until 8pm and I did exactly the same as their paid employees did. I wouldn’t really call this an internship anymore.”

This issue concerns Ben Lyons of campaign group Intern Aware, who promote fairer access to the internship system. Ben started the group because he felt frustrated at seeing so many friends who were clever and hard working be turned down for paid jobs, instead getting into debt during unpaid internships.

Ben says: “there are three groups of people; the small minority who are lucky to have enough money from family or whoever to fund them during internships. Then there is a bigger group who just manage to do internships but get into terrible debt or max out their overdraft. The largest group are those who are completely excluded from internships because they are simply too poor, regardless of how smart or motivated they are.”  

Free labour

The issue of unpaid internships seems to stir an opinion in most young people. Many will argue that employers want to exploit students for free labour, but that doesn’t always have to be the case  as internships can provide you with hands-on experience and give you the  much needed credibility when you apply for your future job.

It is certainly not all doom and gloom, with the percentage of Kingston graduates in employment at 84% and rising year on year. Former student JovitaTreciokaite, 21, interned for a small law firm that later offered her a job. “It was such a great experience and I would recommend every student doing an internship. It gives you such valuable insights into a job and you never know you might get lucky and get a job out of it as I did.”

The key is to find out which ones to quit and which internships are really worth your while.
Tara sums this up perfectly, “Since that first horrible internship, I have regained my confidence. I realised that while an internship can potentially have a lot to offer, I do too and I am more than just an intern.”

 The National Council for Work Experience has produced the following guidelines to help you decide whether an unpaid internship is worth your while:

·         Discuss the purpose of the internship and clarify expectations from the start.

·         Ensure the placement is valuable – does it give insight into a particular industry? Will it improve certain skills or clarify career aspirations?

·         Discuss the possibilities of any future paid work with the employer, pointing out the skills that you have gained during the internship.

·         Re-consider the value of the internship if it ceases to supply useful contacts and training opportunities.

·         Everyone has a choice and if the balance between valuable work experience tips into exploitation then it is up to you to decide whether to continue or not.

If you do think you have been treated unfairly in an internship and would like to take the issue further to an employment tribunal, contact Intern Aware who can give you further information. In the small number of internship disputes settled in court, most have won hundreds and sometimes even thousands in compensation.
 

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