Thursday, 25 July 2013

On Internships: the system is wrong when you have to break the law to get a job.

So, couertesy of the Guardian, I learned something rather alarming yesterday - for two weeks last month, I was breaking the law. I'd love to say killing spree, but my crime was rather more boring than that; I was, apparently, in contravention of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. Again, sadly, this was not because I was running an illegal sweatshop from my basement (first problem with that being that I don't have a basement). No. I did an internship.

It should have been obvious really. It is illegal to pay anyone over the age of 21 less than €5.93 an hour.  I hadn't realised it, but working for less than €5.93 an hour is also a crime (way to penalise the victim there).

So to clarify: if you do an unpaid internship both you and the person who hired you are breaking the law. Yet, I never questioned the legality of what I was doing, because it's just so ingrained in all our minds that working for free is just something you have to do to get a job. How the hell did it come to this? To a state of affairs where it is considered the norm for thousands of people to be forced to resort to criminal measures to get a foot on the career ladder?

I expected it to an extent with the industry I'm trying to get into. In journalism, your portfolio is your cv, and it's just always been a fact that you'd have to offer your services for free in exchange for those crucial bylines. I worked two days a week at my local paper for four months while I trained, and for a full week at The Times. In retrospect, I don't know which was worse; the Basildon Echo happily employing me as a junior reporter, keeping me in the office all hours working on stories without any pay or The Times offering me "work experience" only to use me to fill in for their receptionist while she was on holiday. Neither of them even paid me travel expenses. But I didn't mind, because I accpeted this was something I needed to do. Where I went wrong was thinking afterwards that I had paid my dues.

So I found myself, several years later, accepting the offer of an unpaid internship at Popdash, the music news website. I fucking loved it. Even though 90% of my output was related to Cheryl Cole (and about 10% of that was likely to actually be true) I loved it, because I was doing what I wanted to do - spending all day writing. In most jobs you spend a certain portion of the day watching the clock, and fucking about on Facebook and Twitter in workplaces kind enough to allow you to do so. I can honestly say I never checked the clock except when I was on my lunch break. My boss had to literally force me I had to go home every day because I always wanted to stay and finish one last thing. I could have checked Facebook, or Twitter, or my emails, but it never occured to me to do so.

I felt productive, felt valued, like a member of the team - exceedingly foolishly, it would turn out, as two weeks into my month long, supposedly rolling internship I got an email telling me not to bother coming in any more. I was only doing two days a week, they'd found someone free to do the whole week, so they wanted to go with her instead. Makes more sense they said. And of course, it does. The fact that they told me they only wanted me to do two days a week and then held it against me doesn't make any sense, but I'm done driving myself mad over that one.

So my foray into the murky criminal underworld has left me feeling bereft and utterly fucking used. This wasn't an opportunity for me to learn vital skills, like anything masquerading as "work experience" should be - I was a trained journalist and received no further instruction from them. This was just an opportunity for them to have someone come in and supplement the work of the ONE permanent writer on the website for free. It was the same at all of the titles in the stable - each was run by one permanent writer, who got to call themself the editor, and a rotating cotarie of interns. Talk about fucking cheap. I worked out on day one this wasn't going to lead to my being offered a job there. And because I was unceremoniously booted out ahead of schedule, I never even got to sit down with my editor and discuss my performance, ask where I could improve, and ask for his advice on breaking into the industry, which I was planning to do. I didn't even get to pick up my travel expenses. I'm not sure exploitative even begins to cover the extent of the dodginess of that operation.

But like I said, I at least, was prepared for this. When did it change from creative jobs like writing and design requiring people to "pay their dues" working for free to ALL jobs? Every week I am inundated with emails from job websites, particularly those aimed at students/graduates all advertising internships: "Marketing Internships", "IT Internships", "Finance Internships". It reached it's absolute zenith, however, last week, when I spied an ad for an "Administration Internship".

When I'm not busy working for free I do temp work in offices, reception, general admin, that sort of thing. Have done for many years, while I was still modelling, travelling etc. This is what I do formoney, and more pointedly, my first job after uni when I had no experience whatsoever. So I was racking my brains trying to think what on earth someone could want to do in the administrative field that would require/justify some form of unpaid training. So I clicked on the details, and job description ran thusly: "Working behind the reception desk, answering calls, greeting visitors etc, plus filing, data entry and ad hoc administrative duties". That's not an internship, that's a receptionist/officer junior role, a school-leavers job, full time, for no money. That's what I won't get out of bed for less than €7.50 an hour for (I'm so rock and roll), for FREE. I'm sorry but whoever is behind that is taking the fucking piss, and should be ashamed of themelves, because they're not helping anyone but themselves with that "great opportunity to gain some experience in the challenging world of office administration". If you need to breal the law to get a job anwering phones now, Cod help us all is all I can say.

As for my experience, it hasn't got me any closer to a career in journalism. Maybe I should have been hacking people's phones.

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