Unpaid internships: a mugs game?

In recent times, it has become common practise for companies to hire unpaid interns. Essentially the concept underpinning this is: they get an extra member of staff for free, and you get some great experience to put on your CV – everybody wins, right?

As a recent graduate, I am no stranger to the unpaid internship. Consequently, it has come to my attention that the term ‘internship’ is all too often becoming a substitute for ‘free labour.’ Take for example, an advert I recently saw on Gumtree, where someone was advertising for a ‘Voluntary Waitress.’ I kid you not. They billed it as an opportunity to gain waitress experience – now, I’ve been a waitress – frankly it’s not that hard, nor is it worth working for free to ‘gain experience.’

Now aside from ‘voluntary waitressing,’ I think there’s a lot to be said for internships, even if you do have to work for free. Unpaid internships are particularly common in the arts sector, as naturally, they have less money, and that’s fine. I have had some fantastic opportunities in arts internships, where I have learned a lot; been treated as an equal; and gained some great connections.

However, I have also had some, shall we say, not-so-good experiences including: essentially being treated like a courier – I once travelled an hour across London to pick up a mug (yes, just a mug) and then drop it off at another location; being sent an email in a tiny box-room office that asked me to kindly ‘make us all a cup of tea’; not to mention working in an office which I’m pretty sure turned into a strip club of sorts by night.

I like to think that none of these experiences, even the bad, have been wasted, as I’ve had to get used to dealing with office politics, and difficult conversations – ‘I don’t think this is a good fit for me’ – translated: ‘Get me the hell out of here!’

So internships clearly do have some value. I think the problem lies in organisations taking advantage of this internship craze, where they simply give their interns the jobs that no one else wants to do. Yes, I know you must start at the bottom, but at a certain point, if all you’re doing is admin/cold calling/picking up mugs (yes I haven’t quite let it go), then you might as well be working as a receptionist/in a call centre/as a mug-deliverer, and be getting paid for it.

For me, a good internship should leave you with some valuable new skills, or help you develop existing ones. Ideally, there should also be an opportunity for a paid job at the end of it, although this is often not the case.

Either way, I think internships are here to stay. Quite simply because, if you won’t work for free, someone else will – so you might as well get stuck in and hope for the best that you aren’t lumbered with making tea and photocopying. And if you are and you hate it – the plus side is: they aren’t paying you – you can quit! And move onto the next one…

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