by Polly Curtis, Bonnie Friend and Sam Jones
guardian.co.uk, Friday 31 July 2009
Alex Donovan, 22, has been trying to break into the film world since graduating from Nottingham University last year with a degree in American studies.
After numerous unpaid stints as a runner, assistant director, editor, camera assistant, scriptwriter, website tester and general office skivvy, he is signing on and working unpaid in an east London theatre.
“It’s immensely frustrating and I’ve got to the point now where I can’t do internships,” he said. “I’ve been on the dole for six months and I can’t get bar work and a lot of high street recruitment agencies won’t take me on as I don’t have recognisable skills. They won’t even take my CV. I knew film was notoriously difficult to get into, but I’d hoped to be in a paid job after six months.”
Despite the setbacks, Donovan is determined to persevere. “It would be very easy to get depressed and there are nights when I think, ‘Oh my God, why am I doing this?’ but I will definitely keep pushing away to get into film; I would hate to end up doing something I didn’t want to do.”
Research by the National Council for Work Experience suggests that Donovan is not alone, and that his predicament will be shared by thousands more graduates this year.
A poll of 1,400 recent graduates and students who were seeking work found that 66% had felt obliged to work for free and 67% said they felt “exploited” or “undervalued” while doing work experience. The research, seen by the Guardian, reveals that half had worked unpaid for four weeks or more.
The government’s own guidelines suggest that in the vast majority of cases unpaid placements should be for no more than two weeks.
Heather Collier, director of the NCWE, said: “One camp says that work experience is exploitation and should be paid. The other says that if people want to work for free for a fixed amount of time they should be allowed to do it.
“If both the student and the employer are gaining something then that should be OK. There’s a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and preventing good work experiences. But you can’t have employers using the recession to get people to work for free.”
Internships are a grey area legally. The law, introduced by Labour in 1998, stipulates that all workers should be paid the minimum wage bar a few exceptions when the work is related to their studies.
People on work experience should only be expected to shadow people, and not undertake duties a paid employee would usually do.
Despite this, internships are commonplace in many workplaces – from the House of Commons to the bulk of arts and media organisations – and the law has not been tested in the courts.
Andy Shovel, who graduated from Nottingham University last year, set up a recruitment service offering employers a chance to “try before they buy” new graduates by taking them on a three-month internship, after which they are expected to be offered a job.
He said the service protects graduates because he only takes his commission when they get the full-time job, meaning he will not recommend employers who he has not vetted to make sure they are serious about offering a job at the end of the placement.
“There is exploitation in internships. I find the worst offenders are in the most competitive graduate fields. That would be journalism, music industry, PR and advertising. Companies from those sectors are really quite frankly taking the piss. We get people saying we don’t need you because we like interns to pay their own expenses.”
There is evidence that internships make such professions more elitist, by excluding those who cannot work for free. One recent survey by Internocracy, a social enterprise campaigning to improve internships, found that the most commonly cited deterrent to taking an internship was the lack of funding, but nevertheless a third would still be willing to do a year’s free work to get the experience they need to start a career.
Dominic Potter, founder of Internocracy, said: “Internships are a fantastic opportunity for young people to get an experience and flavour of work. But there are undoubtedly examples of interns being brought in as a cheap pairs of hands and there is a danger that in the recession people do that more to save money.”
The problem of internships reinforcing some professions as elites was underlined a fortnight ago when Alan Milburn, the prime minister’s adviser on social mobility, made a series of recommendations on improving the access of working-class young people to the “closed shop” of the professions. His report was critical of the exclusivity of some work experience placements which bar people who cannot afford to work for free.
For graduates currently applying for internships, the experiences of recent graduates will make sober reading, particularly if they are seeking careers in traditionally competitive professions such as the media.
Carli Humphries, 23, moved to London last summer to pursue a career in journalism after graduating from Bristol University with a 2:1 in history. After completing a six-month course in magazine journalism, she managed to get internships on a number of magazines and newspapers including Grazia, InStyle, Easy Living and the Guardian. It was all going to plan.
But the work experience turned out to be mixed: sometimes she found herself busy and involved. At others she was parked in a corner of the office and left to surf the web; sometimes she was offered expenses, often she was not.
After a year of intermittent work experience, Humphries is now freelancing and working part-time as a sales assistant. “Unpaid work is difficult for students to fund, and I think one of the problems about work experience in the media is not knowing where you stand in relation to expenses,” she says.
“It would sit slightly easier with me if I knew the industry wasn’t dominated by ‘girls like us’, which it definitely is.”