There was an added pressure during my second year of university; now I was no longer a bewildered fresher, I was somehow expected to know what I wanted to do after graduating. Part of this process was the frantic applying to summer internship schemes. Or at least for my friends it was, as in my usual fashion of attempting to avoid all adult responsibility, I neglected to do this. The most I had done was to book festival tickets. I was then made to feel incredibly inferior by said friends who seemed to have their lives sorted- they’d completed applications throughout the year and would now spend their summers becoming journalists, lawyers and investment bankers.
When summer came around I panicked, realising I did need some sort of work experience that would add to my (pretty barren) CV and maybe give me some sort of clue as to what I wanted to do after university. A month into my vacation I happened to stumble on some last minute opportunities at a well known publishing house. I have never felt particularly inspired by the world of publishing, but thought I would have nothing to lose by submitting an application. I was offered 2 weeks unpaid work experience in the publicity department, and I was pretty happy about it. Despite being rather disorganised when it came to my post-Oxford career, I had managed to secure an opportunity that I thought I could gain valuable skills from.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite how it panned out. They probably could have trained a monkey to do my job – all I did from 9 to 5 was put books and press releases in jiffy bags, stick on address labels, and take the packages to the post room. A particular highlight was spending an afternoon putting “signed copy” stickers on to 500 books. People I talked to who were doing work experience in other departments had it worse – they had already graduated and were in disbelief that this was how their degree was being put to use.
What was exasperating was that the publishing house really did need our help. These tasks may have been mindless, but they were necessary. Having work experience candidates meant that the departments were run more efficiently, as the full-time employees weren’t bogged down with these menial jobs, so were able to get on with other more important things. Better still, they were getting this service at the price of just £2.00 for lunch each day and travel expenses (which they still haven’t bothered to pay me back). My experience wasn’t unique, but it also wasn’t the worst. Friends of mine have provided invaluable help for large companies over the summer without seeing any financial reward.
In the grand scheme of things, I was actually pretty fortunate in that this was only a couple of weeks work experience, and I was able to shoulder the costs. However, longer unpaid internships are plaguing a graduate labour market where there are too many worthy candidates and not enough jobs to accommodate them. Candidates are stuck between a rock and a hard place in needing experience to get experience, and for the most part it seems that unpaid internships are the only solution. This system is then incredibly discriminatory against those who are unable to afford to work for free.
Frustratingly, it doesn’t have to be like this. I spoke to Sabina Usher, Marketing Manager at Instant Impact; an intern recruitment company that connects students and graduates with SMEs and only offers paid internships.
“Interns deserve to be paid under NMW legislation if they have a set role, are doing set tasks and have set hours. All our internships are paid to reflect the hard work that these interns do and in turn, employers have access to wider talent and a productive recruit who is likely to stick around for longer”
More needs to be done to raise awareness surrounding this issue. To ask students or graduates to work for up to a year without pay is simply no longer acceptable. The problem lies in awareness and enforcement – although the government has proposed to ban the advertisement of unpaid internships, it would appear the campaign has ground to a halt. Many companies, as well as students, are unaware that most unpaid internships are in violation of National Minimum Wage legislation. It is the responsibility of the government and HMRC to enforce stricter legislation and regulation.
It is reassuring that when I do finally graduate and figure out what career is for me, I have the option of finding an internship that is both mentally stimulating and financially rewarding. It does not have to be like this.