This post was written in November 2010. I am now no longer a member of the NUJ. However, my feelings on internships have not changed.

There has always been some discomfort about the idea of unpaid internships, work experience etc. However, in the media they are considered something of a necessary evil.

National Union of Journalists
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The NUJ have launched a campaign highlighting the fact that anyone who’s worked as an unpaid intern over the past six years COULD be entitled to minimum wage back pay – irrespective of the terms of the internship at the time. (They make a clear distinction,however, between internships and work experience. Internships tend to be longer and you make a contribution to the company. Unfortunately individuals on work experience often slip into an internship role, if they have anything about them they will do all they can to make a contribution to the company)

I am a fully paid up member of the NUJ but this concerns me.

Yes, companies DO take advantage of unpaid workers but don’t believe that this is entirely a one way street. With so many teenagers heading to university nowadays, and coming out with a range of weird and wonderful degrees, anyone serious about getting into the media can’t rely on a Desmond in Media Studies any more. I actively encourage students to get as much work experience as possible. Not only are they, as I did, putting themselves in a prime position for any vacancies that DO come up, but they are making contacts, learning about the industry and picking up new skills that their university may omit to teach them.

You simply cannot put a price on that.

This added pressure on media companies concerns me because it could …

1. put those  who have used interns in the past in a dire financial situation if they had to dig deep and find back pay

2. discourage others from offering internships in the future

Don’t think that companies will immediately start finding money to pay interns in the future, they won’t. It simply means the opportunities will close up and there will be fewer chances to get a foot in the door for the media workers of the future. On the other hand, as I explained above, there is a distinction between Intern and Work Experience. Maybe we’ll see a drop off in internships and a shift to work experience. Maybe this wouldn’t be such a bad thing?

I also have concerns when young people complain they do not have time to intern. Yes, they find time to go to football on a Saturday, see their friends a few nights a week and still have time to watch TV, play computer games and sleep.

It comes down to how badly you want it. I understand that not everyone has the luxury of supportive parents. But I do wonder how desperate you are for a role in this industry, if you are not prepared to give up some of your spare time getting experience

Your thoughts?

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3 thoughts on “INTERNSHIPS: slave labour or opportunity?

  1. Hi Caroline

    I am also an NUJ member. We need to make the distinction between students on work experience as part of their education and those doing unpaid work. From an employment perspective this is the current difference. Like you, I did unpaid experience as a student and was prepared to do more to help me find a job.

    However I see there is now a clear problem with publications relying on continual interns to do the work they frankly do not want to do. It is this which must be stopped. We are all overstretched but we need to make a stand by only taking on students and making sure when we do that we mentor them and give them a rich, fulfilling experience. Having them file magazines or photocopy, despite being an essential part of work, is not what they are there to do.

    We should take internships more seriously and I feel we should all try to offer them to share our experience with the next generation of journalists. But we shouldn’t use work experience as a way of getting through the day and keeping up with admin.

    I am aware that there are some who would like to do work experience without being on an educational course but to take these people on is against the law.

    Additionally I would not try to get money back for unpaid placements: I can’t imagine anyone was forced into these and it will do exactly as you say – put financial pressure on publishers and discourage placements which can be of great value.

    We just need to re-work the way we do ‘interns’ – the current system is taking advantage and creating a system where only the well-off can become journalists (as if we were too diverse to begin with!)

    Thanks for posting this.
    – Charlie

    1. You make a good point there Charlie, and unfortunately a beneficial system is being “stretched” These so called “tough economic times” are is giving some companies the excuse they need to make cutbacks and rely on unpaid workers.

      I wonder if the only shift we will see is a phasing out of the word “internship”, to be replaced by “work experience” (although I must confess I have not seen the term used that widely in media circles. It always struck me as a very American phrase not normally adopted by British companies, who were more likely to use the word “placement” or the old favourite, “work experience”). None of the 3 “free” placements I carried out were ever termed internships , yet in all of them I was actually carrying out a role (trainee journalist, TV researcher and PR/press officer/A&R). Only one of these paid expenses.

      Is there not an argument for there to be MORE unpaid opportunities so more people can take advantage of them? Instead of penalising companies for taking people on, shouldn’t we instead encourage them?

      I know there is an argument that unpaid placements are taking away from professionals already in the field, but, again as I said in the piece, I suspect these companies would not suddenly start paying for that role to be filled, they just simply wouldn’t have the role (and the company would suffer long term), or they would force a current member of staff take on those extra duties.

  2. Some really good points here…

    It isn’t just journalism that is doing this. From Architects to Zookeeping… every type of business is discovering the benefits of free labour… and some (media?) are more advanced in the practice than others.

    Yes there are benefits both ways, but it is rapidly becoming the norm in many industries to become an unpaid intern as the entry point to a chosen career. So should we consider this as just another form of Student Tax? Should there be limits on an employers usage of individuals in this way i.e. maximum numbers of interns; maximum percentage of total employees as interns; maximum duration of internship; etc? And should interns get tax credits for the time they have worked without pay?

    Is this a subject that is now in need of more serious consideration and possible legislation?

    James Rock

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