internships

According to an article in yesterday’s Guardian, unpaid interns are starting to ‘lawyer up’ and take employers to court for exploitation – demanding at least the minimum wage for the hours they’ve worked.

Yes, all employees deserve to be paid. But do you really want to go to court for the sake of redeeming £200? It will most likely cost a lot more than that, and could potentially tarnish your reputation within that industry.

This is dodgy ground to be treading because an exploited member of staff should, of course, speak up – and the employer should be prosecuted. But these interns are CHOOSING to work for free. So instead of embarking on a costly, stressful lawsuit – I’d say get out of that workplace immediately and try another route in.

It’s worth bearing in mind that internships are sometimes (perhaps often) more for the intern’s benefit than the employers, as noted in the Guardian article:

‘Part of the problem is that in many companies an intern’s role (indeed, the point of them even being there) is unclear to everybody, including those tasked with supervising them. So, interns end up being given jobs simply “to keep them busy” or “to give them some experience’

If the boss doesn’t need you there, and you’re not gaining valuable experience, why hang around?

I’ve done a fair few unpaid internships so I can reflect on the months I spent at ITN, the Independent, The Times, Timeout, the Hackney Gazette, the Hackney Citizen and the Western Gazette (amongst others) to ascertain whether those placements were worthwhile.

I had articles published in The Times, I co-produced a More4 news show at ITN, as well as carrying out important research projects, I’ve written dozens of articles for the Hackney Citizen, covered the arts editorial for the Hackney Gazette for a month during my journalism MA and wrote so many articles for the Western Gazette that a staff member commented when I had to leave (to get a paid job) that I’d had more articles published than any of the reporters during my months there.

I gained experience of sitting in a newsroom (a lot less glamorous that you might imagine) and of liaising with editors, but there was nothing else during those placements that I couldn’t have learned from going freelance, pitching ideas to publications and eventually securing some paid work, as I later went on to do.

So here’s my advice to people leaving university and starting out in a creative industry: forget unpaid internships – do something innovative instead.

I recently met a man who wanted to leave his job in the music industry to become a copywriter. He wanted to know how to get a full time job in copywriting. I told him to first set up a website (free on WordPress, Blogger, or similar hosting sites). He wanted to work in advertising so I suggested a section for ad ideas – potential pitches. Also, to ask any of his pals setting up their own websites if he could write the web copy. This would then go in the portfolio section of his website and when he got interviews for PROPER JOBS (not internships) he could present his website as proof of his dedication to copywriting. This will undoubtedly fare better than discussing your two week unpaid internship spent making tea for dickheads.

You could start a community art project, get local papers interested – try to get national coverage too. Pitch a column to your local paper, you probably won’t get paid but you’ll be published every week and it can easily be squeezed into your free hours if working a paid, full time menial job. Filmmakers: make a music video for your mate. Or make a documentary and get it published online. At least if you’re not being paid, you’ll be building a portfolio and online profile for yourself. Being office skivvy for months on end is a lot less likely to help kick-start, or further, your career.

A work placement can be useful if you’re deciding what industry to get into, but I think most of us embark on an internship in the hope that it will lead to a full time job. It rarely does. And instead costs a huge amount of money, for just another ‘work placement’ on your CV.

I was lucky that I could move back to my parents’ house in London after finishing uni. I worked Saturday nights on the door of a nightclub and did various catering jobs to earn enough to cover my travel and expenses whilst undergoing a succession of unpaid placements. But if I hadn’t been able to do that, I’d have forgone the placements, got any paid job I could – and probably spent my evenings and weekends sending off my writing to publications until someone accepted it.

I’m now working as a full time copywriter, writing about films and TV, and got my job largely because the employer liked my blog. That, and a bit of extra work on the assignment I was set – mocking up the in-house page layout in InDesign to present the copy I’d written.

I still occasionally write articles for free, but only on topics I’m particularly passionate about – and for publications with a good circulation to boost my online profile. So I’m not suggesting that all unpaid work is a waste of time – it’s definitely not – but if you’re working Monday-Friday, 9am ‘til whenever, struggling to find cash to pay your rent because you’re not even being paid expenses – get out of that gaff. Now. Go home, find some paid part time work doing anything, and write/ design/ make films – whatever your area is – for yourself. Then share them. The internet’s amazing for self promotion.

If we all do this, those shitty employers who are actually taking on interns to do the same job as paid staff, but without paying them, will be up shit creek. And that’s the better way round: they should be in the shit, not us.