Wanted: free dogsbodies

Unpaid internships not only negate widening-access efforts, they devalue jobs and graduates, says Amy Binns

July 30, 2009

I recently took a phone call from the editor of a "magazine" - one of those advertisement-laden publications that litter your hallway. He was hoping my journalism students would write for him: "We don't have an editorial staff as such, we use freelancers, but the same old voices get a bit tired," he said. "We can't actually pay, but if they do restaurant reviews they get a free meal and a glass of wine."

Or in plain English: "Please send me your naive, hopeful students to fill my pages for free. By the time the public equates journalism with advertising, I'll have made my stash."

I didn't pass his details on. I didn't want to kill off someone's job, and it would also be poor experience in the absence of senior staff. But how ethical was this? Placements, especially where students can do more than make the tea, are highly popular.

The "sexy" creative industries have long benefited from a stream of starry-eyed students, but the credit crunch has brought another turn of the screw.

There is alarming evidence that some firms are replacing graduate recruitment schemes with internships - in other words, the same people doing the same jobs but for no money. Students fill in forms, submit portfolios and go for interviews (travel expenses not reimbursed), all for the privilege of six months or even a year of high-pressure, unpaid dogsbodying, where every day is a test of commitment.

Many think this is better than no job at all. It instils a work ethic, boosts self-esteem and contributes to society. The Government agrees: its latest wheeze to keep unemployment figures down is the Graduate Talent Pool, a website matching interns with employers. This suits university marketing departments, too - interns will be classed as having found graduate-level work.

However, it is not the same thing. Although some well-organised internship programmes are worth the trouble (J.P. Morgan's has a 60 per cent conversion rate to employment), many are exploitative. When someone is only staying a limited time, there's little sense showing them anything except how to work the photocopier. Interns' attempts to do more, forcing busy staff into training roles, may be crushed.

I was guilty of this myself when working in a newsroom. In one particularly ruthless moment, my colleague and I complained to our news editor that the empty desk between us was always filled with the latest work-experience muppet, forcing us into tedious time-wasting chat.

Financially, graduate interns are worse off than students. They don't qualify for cheap loans or jobseeker's allowance and can no longer fit in a bit of shopwork to help pay the bills.

A fashion student recently came to see me, ecstatic at having "won" a placement with a major London designer. The details of how a working-class Northerner was going to fund a year among the beautiful people were lost in the triumph of the moment, but really there is only one solution - add it to the debt mountain.

This makes the benefits of a university education more doubtful. We know graduates earn £100,000 more over their lifetime than non-graduates. We know this figure shrinks when you take out the lawyers and doctors. How far will it fall if you routinely remove another year's salary? Sadly, an unpaid year is fast becoming routine. Changes such as these are hard to reverse and have long-term effects.

In theory, work placements are meritocratic. Applicants are forced to perform rather than just look good on paper or at interview. In reality, they tilt the playing field firmly towards those who can afford it, negating universities' attempts to widen access. They risk destroying some paid jobs altogether, and by extension threaten some industries. If the worker - employee or not - gets a declining slice of the cake, talented people will look elsewhere. This matters in a global market where other countries choose different paths.

They say you get what you pay for, but this is only half the equation. You also value what you pay for - and only what you pay for. If people work for nothing, in some places they will be treated like nothing. And it's only one short step before the jobs they fill are worth nothing, too.

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