Give 'workies' a workout

Interns deserve meaningful duties, not humiliating tasks, says Sally Feldman

February 11, 2010

Celia Walden's been having heaps of fun lately. In her Daily Telegraph column a couple of weeks ago she chortled over her treatment of Ed, the work-experience student. Right from the moment he appeared, "looking like a scrubbed and Brylcreemed Just William in his ill-fitting suit", he was destined to be the office whipping boy. He was sent to collect someone's dry-cleaning, while Celia had him buying her stockings, filing her business cards and making her restaurant reservations.

She went on to confess that, while baiting any junior was quite rewarding, it was even better doing it to a boy, perhaps as payback for the humiliations she endured during her own early years in journalism. Bad attitude, Celia. But, I'm afraid, not entirely unusual.

Ed was presumably one of the hundreds of students who undertake work experience as part of their studies, to help equip them for employment by giving them some real-life flavour of the worlds they're hoping to enter. Work-experience schemes are also an attempt to combat the nepotism that still permeates most workplaces, especially in the media.

Traditionally, privileged girls like Celia and her chums would gain their stint in a newsroom as a favour to a well-connected relative. Claudia Winkleman, TV presenter daughter of the former Fleet Street editor Eve Pollard, recently admitted that she landed her first breaks through her mother. Anyone with a well-known parent who denies that they got help, she scoffed, must be lying.

So at least the work-placement schemes organised by universities are able to avoid the cloning that's so endemic in the creative industries. And employers are more likely to take their student interns seriously if they've signed a contract undertaking to offer mentoring and to write a report afterwards. But even that doesn't necessarily protect students from office Celias. Some return with woeful tales of spending all week doing nothing but making tea, being sent out to track down Krispy Kreme doughnuts or "no-bread" sandwiches - mag-speak for salad, apparently. One student landed a coveted placement on a lads' magazine, only to find that she had to appear in the "singles dating page" as they were running low on girls that month. Staff on another used to run bets on who could get the furthest with each female student - they even ran a chart, displayed on the office wall.

Women's magazines tend to be much more sympathetic to the "workies". But not all of them. One student was turned away from an upscale glossy on her first day because the fashion director deemed her "overweight and dowdy". She was a size 6. Another hated her stint on the beauty desk of Grazia so much that she wreaked a fitting revenge. One of her tasks had been to fetch the daily round of skinny lattes for the entire team. On her last day she revealed that all along she'd been buying full-fat instead.

And when it comes to how well they treat the students, newspapers can sometimes confound their images. One journalism undergraduate was delighted to be accepted for two weeks at The Independent - only to find when he arrived that there were seven others, none of whom was given anything to do at all. Meanwhile, his mate who'd gone to The Sun was invited to news conferences, sent out on stories, and given a vast list of contacts when she left. Those at The Sunday Times Magazine photo desk are treated as one of the team as soon as they arrive, attending photo shoots and offering ideas on page layouts and choice of photographs.

Students expect to run errands and make tea. Willingness, after all, is one of the great hidden assets of any employee. But that should be just part of their duties - they need real work and real tasks. Sometimes this can be taken to extremes. I frequently get calls from companies that want to offer our students "a really fabulous opportunity", but who are clearly just after some free labour.

Far, far worse are media companies - and it usually is media companies - who take on graduates as interns, paying them nothing for the privilege of just being there. I've known a number of people so keen to get into the industry that they'll work for free for years, literally, in the hope of eventually landing a job. They, of course, tend to be supported by wealthy parents - perpetuating the inequality that is so rife anyway. And even those who do finally make it in publishing or broadcasting will usually be paid rather less than the guy cleaning the photocopier or the driver whisking the boss to yet another sumptuous business lunch. It makes my blood boil whenever Gordon Brown makes one of his cyclical speeches about the brilliance of the UK's creative industries, never mentioning that many of these are fuelled by slave labour.

I can only hope that the newer generations of bosses, who have been through our courses and benefited from supportive work experience, will value their own "workies" with a little more grace. After all, in my experience it's the truly successful and talented who are the most generous with new recruits and who genuinely want to pass on their wisdom.

And it can be something of an insurance policy, too. Next time Celia feels like getting the intern to tidy her desk or fill out her expenses, she might do well to bear in mind that old adage: always be nice to people on the way up; because you'll meet the same people on the way down.

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