Unpaid Internships: Write or Wrong?

I’ve had a bit of a bee in my bonnet the past day or so, and felt I just had to blog about that age-old topic: internships. Not in an angry way – but as someone who has been an intern and now hires interns, I felt the need to share. 
Why this week? Well, the debate surrounding unpaid internships has been floating about in the press recently – are they exploitation, are they necessary, are companies taking the mick by paying nothing but expenses… etc. All interesting questions but really, nothing new. Yesterday, however, I saw a tweet: ‘Report claims unpaid internships are breaking the law‘. Well, that’s new. 
According to a new report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, anyone who works in the private sector has the right to be paid minimum wage. As Press Gazette explains:

“Employers mistakenly believe there is a ‘grey area’ around internships in the National Minimum Wage legislation and that they are allowed to take on unpaid interns so long as both sides know it is a voluntary position – but they are wrong. The law is in fact very clear and this is simply not the case.

“Under, the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 anyone doing work for an organisation must be paid at least the minimum wage. This is regardless of how a job was advertised, what the job title is or whether there is a contract in place. Charities, voluntary organisations and statutory bodies are able to employ unpaid voluntary workers but private companies are not.”

Yesterday, I also just so happened to interview a new intern for Wahanda, as we’ve been looking to replace one who recently left. The report even mentioned our advert (though spelt our name wrong), and included that we pay £10 a day expenses. (They left out that we accept part timers and throw in some pampering once in a while – but that’s not for this post.) They kindly left out any remarks to what they thought of this but I don’t imagine they were recommending it. Enter, my decision to discuss internships; not on behalf of Wahanda – these are my own thoughts – but based on my experience both there and at other media companies. 
Working for nothing?
I can see both sides. I am on and have been on both sides. The thing is – until now (and that’s quite possibly because of the recession), internships have just been what you do to get the job you want. They even start you off on them at school – my first ‘work experience’ post was in Year 10 where I went and joined my sister at a care home for the day. In fact, I’d completed three lots of work experience before my GCSEs were up. No matter what job you think about going into, right from the early stages it is drilled into you – experience is everything. Contacts are everything. The earlier you become a tea-wielding intern, the better.
In the media, this is obviously a hot topic. Internships are like gold dust, or at least they were when I was at uni (only two years ago, thank ye very much). Lately though, with the redundancies brought about by the recession we’ve seen more and more ‘job-like’ internships come up – I’ve even seen some which are listed as Editorial Assistant positions, and then you see the small print: “We are unable to offer any remuneration at this time….”. This is frustrating, I know. But I do feel like there’s been a change of attitude toward internships because of this change in the industry – and now graduates, even A level students are expecting more, whether it’s paid internships or instant paid jobs. I may be wrong – that’s just an impression I get. Young writers (and I’m sure other new starters in other careers) don’t seem as willing to work for free any more – even if it does get them some valuable experience. 
We’ve all done it
Here’s my problem with that – I was an intern. We’ve all been interns. Even before my first internship, I was writing for a couple of websites for free, as and when I wanted to (which was a lot of the time). It just is and always has been the done thing – and it works.
I’m lucky, as I’ve never had a bad internship. In fact, I wasn’t even chief tea-maker in any of them. I went from Inside Soap (loved it) to Wahanda (loved it) and then got hired, end of story. Inside Soap was full time, with generous expenses paid, and Wahanda was part time, with our standard £10 a day for expenses. I was happy with this – I’d graduated a few months back, was still finding my feet, was learning a hell of a lot and knew it was a start-up company. I also knew it was flexible, which was exactly what I needed. 
Flexibility is an important point, I think; I disagree with companies who strictly write their vacancy ad to say ‘This is a six month, full time internship’. That’s not fair. You have to accept that your interns will want to keep applying for paid jobs while they are with you, and are logically going to accept one should they get it. 
What does this mean? It means an unpaid internship is not a ball and chain. You are doing the company a favour as much as they are doing you one (yes, they are remember – they are helping you gain valuable skills so you can become editor of Vogue later) – so if you can’t make it in tomorrow because it’s your mum’s birthday or you want to jet off on holiday for a long weekend, you probably can. Give them the respect and give them notice, and they should respect you and understand that it’s your right to do that – because they don’t pay you so they don’t really get a say. 
Be reliable, but not relied on
Companies also shouldn’t rely on interns for their business to stay afloat, in my opinion – I have heard about one events website which is pretty much run by interns; if they didn’t work for free, the site would have very little content. This is not a way to run a business, not a way to treat your interns and not something you should do for too long – if a company relies on you, do it for however long you feel is right, learn what you can and then move on to somewhere with a better structure where you’ll be appreciated.
It doesn’t stop there
I’m not saying you should work for free forever – or that it’s always the right thing to do. But bear in mind, the people who love that career are often working for free even when they don’t have to. I write this blog because I enjoy it. I still write for a few websites on an unpaid basis because I believe in them, I enjoy the work and I want to help out. The many beauty bloggers I talk to on Twitter are mostly journalists or even accountants and 9-5ers who simply love beauty and want to share it with a readership, even if they don’t get a penny for their efforts. 

Obviously, the end goal is to get a job – and an internship can be the yellow brick road to your Emerald city.  Every writer at Wahanda, including me, has started out as an intern with the company – we proved ourselves, were in the right place at the right time, and now get to do what we love every day. I’ve also had the pleasure to work with some fantastic writers who have come along as interns, learned a lot and been a great part of the team during their time with us and then gone onto even greater things. We’re always sad to see them go but also pleased that us teaching them CMS or HTML or what a fish pedicure is has helped them get a job they want somehow.

Still not convinced? Then my tips are:
1. Do it while you’re studying. It may not feel like it, but if you’re a student you’re a hell of a lot richer than a graduate – milk that student loan and your job at the corner shop and use your spare time to do a couple of valuable internships whether they’re unpaid or not. That way once you do graduate, you’re in a better position to moan about still having to work for free (but still won’t get much sympathy, as we’ve all been there before).
2. Don’t just rely on set internships. Writers, the web is your oyster – there are so many websites out there that are new and lacking in funding, so they want writers to do the odd article, make their mark on the online world and give them some content. Contribute to these sites and it’ll look great on your CV, while being flexible (there’s that word again) and relevant, as you can pick your subject. 
3. Write a blog. When interns apply to Wahanda the first people I notice are ones who understand and use the web – and this is instantly recognisable in someone who creates and maintains a blog. It’s also a great way to get your writing style up to scratch and in the public eye. 
If you want to get into journalism, don’t expect too much and if you are able to, then do a couple of internships. They will make your CV stand out, teach you more than you’ll ever learn at uni and will get you some useful contacts along the way. Know your limits, know your rights, but most of all, enjoy it – in some ways, it’ll be one of the best parts of your career.
That’s my rant over – would love to hear your thoughts. Do you agree or disagree with unpaid work experience?
It's good to share:

6 thoughts on “Unpaid Internships: Write or Wrong?

  • Fantastic post and I couldn’t agree more. Approached in the correct way, internships can be very beneficial, so it’s a shame that some companies are really pushing the boundaries of acceptable (like the editorial roles you mentioned)

    Having previously worked in recruitment, I know there are quite a few graduates who refuse to do work experience or take on any role below £25k as they believe it’s ‘beneath them’. So it goes both ways.

    It’s a complicated issue! Obviously those with less money will struggle to take on internships, but that’s sadly a fact of life that those with less money will have to work a little bit harder. That’s not to say it’s fair. I say this as someone who saved up for months and months in order to take on a couple of internships!

  • As an eighteen year old about to start Uni, I can definitely see the benefits of unpaid internships.
    Last summer I found myself placements at Natmags, Grand Designs Magazine and Food & Travel magazine and loved every minute. I felt I learnt a lot because I put in a lot which I guess is what you have to do. I didn’t get paid a penny at any of them, but I was given a lovely goodie bag from the former and enjoyed a chocolate biscuit tasting at the latter – so the rewards came from the experience primarily.
    I also started a placement at a small publishing company (whom I shan’t name!) but felt that I was doing pointless tasks that weren’t benefitting the company or me. After a bit of thinking, I knew that this wasn’t right and the company accepted that the placement wasn’t great as I left for good on the second day.
    Additionally, I write for several sites around the web, whilst maintaining my own blog in the hope that this will make me stand out when I eventually approach the job market.
    I plan to continue to intern in the holidays throughout Uni as well.
    I love interning – so long as the intern isn’t given too many responsibilities and is happy with what they’re doing, then I see no reason why it should be queried.
    I know that there are, however, companies that will take advantage of interns and I disagree strongly with this. But the way the graduate market is at the moment, I can definitely sees more pros than cons to unpaid internships.

  • Thanks for your comments girls!

    I agree with you both. I’m not saying it’s easy at all, and I definitely disagree with companies who don’t appreciate their interns and their time – it’s a two way thing. But I also don’t think the system should change.

    In this economy at the moment, if internships had minimum wage on them, they would have to be limited to a certain duration as otherwise new graduates wouldn’t have a chance to get one – we’d all be clinging onto the wages.

  • From http://twitter.com/glitterblog :

    As I said to you on Twitter, I’m thoroughly in agreement with what you say. I’m also in agreement with Catherine. I’ve now completed two magazine internships and am in the middle of a PR one, and although they have all been unpaid the experience I am gaining is definitely worth it. At the end of the day, a good internship should be comparable to vocational training – something which many people actually have to pay for to get. Likewise a good internship is also part of an investment. This summer I had the choice of paid temp work or an unpaid internship – I chose the latter because whilst there are no short term financial benefits, in the long term I hope it will aid me in getting the career which I want.

    I’ve been very lucky with my internships, being mentored by inspirational people who understand that I need experience and are willing to help me learn. I’ve also been very lucky in terms of goody bags and samples, meaning that I’ve ended up more half-paid than unpaid! I think that if as an intern you end up doing the equivalent of temp work but unpaid, then you should just leave and get a temp job – but if you are enjoying the placement (which I always have so far) are learning new skills and making new contacts, then surely that’s worth it?

    I also write my own blog and contribute to another. This is work that I do every single day and entirely for free, but fundamentally I do it because I love it – if one day I am able to make money from it then that will be a bonus. If people solely want to make money and arent interested in working simply for enjoyment, then I suggest they pursue investment banking – journalism clearly isnt the career for them.

Leave a Reply