Unpaid Interships Don’t Always Deliver, says shocking NY Times article!
When I read this article for the first time, I was just finishing up an internship with a prestigious Chicago theatre. It had been an intense five months, with many excellent moments but also some stressful-to-the-point-of-tears ones. Looking back, it was a positive experience. At 24, I vowed it would be my last internship. That I was too old for this shit. I was going to go back to education. Get my Masters degree. Get a real job with a real income. Start all that actual life stuff.
So here I am, on my intensive practical hands-on Masters course. And guess what we are strongly encouraged to pursue outside of teaching hours? That’s right! Internships!
As the above article points out, while internships have long been a feature of film and non-profit organisations, they have slowly spread out to cover the entire gamut of the Non-Specific Media Career world. The job climate is abysmal, it’s an employer’s market and bright-eyed young graduates with no skills except Twitter and Starbucks are falling over themselves for that ever-elusive Experience with a capital E.
How much Experience do you need before you start getting paid for the work you do? How many internships is enough? One? Three? I’ve done five so far, and I’m about to start my sixth.
Don’t get me wrong. Many of my internships have been incredibly rewarding, and I’m wildly excited about the one I am about to start because it is in a field I really care about. In past positions, I have gained invaluable insight into the industry and learned about the day-to-day functions of the professional world and had a wonderful networking opportunities and did several hours of photocopying a day and all the other things I said I hoped to achieve in my cover letter. I have also learned a lot about where I definitely do not want to end up, which is almost as useful as becoming a wizard on Microsoft Excel.
I understand that interning involves a certain amount of menial labour. I am not a lazy person and I am certainly not adverse to hard work. A very fundamental part of me objects to working for no pay, but I understand that the pay for an internship does not necessarily come in the form of cash monies. It comes in the form of contacts and references and that all that Experience that is going to land you a great job with a good starting salary and lots of career opportunities once you graduate to the world of paid work.
Recently, I applied for an internship with a prominent London publisher, in their trade fiction division. I wrote a persuasive cover letter to go on along with my overflowing CV. (Yes, I am great on paper.) I got back a rejection email informing me that my experience (in academic publishing) was not relevant, but might well be right for another publisher. I had to wonder; if I – studying for an MA in Publishing with two internships already under my belt – was not “relevant”, then who the hell got the gig? I felt like asking them; why would I be applying for their unpaid internship if I already had relevant experience in that precise field and department? Why would you hire someone to work for no money when they are already over-qualified? The point of an internship is to provide someone with a stepping stone into an industry, not to mine the existing pool for the most experienced of the desperate graduates.
There are certainly employers who do not understand that an internship is a give-take scenario. Perhaps they have been spoiled by the glut of competent hard-working young people scrambling for the opportunity to work for free. The US arts industry has been operating on this system for years. They say the Chicago theatre scene is built on the backs of interns, and that was true of my experience. Most of the theatre companies I encountered, both big and small, function on an endless cycle of interns that rotate every three months or so and essentially keep the office running. The catch-22 is that employers are not supposed to hire interns to do the work of regular employees, but the most rewarding and interesting internships I have held have also been the ones that involved a significant amount of responsibility and allowed me to make a concrete contribution to my department. I understand that it must be difficult for employers to strike a balance, and I am forever grateful to the supervisors and managers who helped me sneak me into important meetings, took the time to give me in-depth feedback on my work, to give me glowing references, to introduce me to Important People, to buy me lunch and offer frank advice over a glass of wine or three. These moment of real mentorship are rare and precious and will continue to stick with me long after I have forgotten the weeks and weeks of data entry on the slowest computer in the building.
And then there’s the time Tesco tried to hire “shelf-stacker” interns. Or that Dalkey Archive Press internship, which (although subsequently and unconvincingly recanted by founder John O’Brien as “satire in the style of Swift, Joyce, Beckett, and Flann O’Brien”) espoused a particularly virulent brand of disdain for the over-qualified masses scrambling to break into their industry of choice.
Last year, one of my internships often involved me pulling a 50/60 hour work week. I was receiving a monthly stipend that covered roughly half my rent. I was able to do this internship because I am lucky enough to have parents with stable jobs who are happy to assist me financially while I figure my shit out. There are thousands of smart ambitious talented young people who do not have that kind of support system. The internship model – especially the full-time high-responsibility kind that will inevitably equip you with the best experience – does not allow these people to get their foot in the door. They don’t have the luxury of working for free.
I don’t have any real answers for this one. I am well and truly embedded in the machine. I will be 25 years old in March. Come hell or high water, by the end of this year I will have a job that pays for all my bills and groceries, maybe even with enough left over have a few beers on the weekend while I complain about how broke I am. Tomorrow, I will be back in an office in my dubious business casual, worrying about my scruffy haircut and smiling politely. Yes, nice to meet you, yes, I’m the new intern, hi.
This post originally ran on my old blog, deathofnewgods.tumblr.com, and has been backdated to reflect this.