There’s a moment in the film “The Life Aquatic” where the ship’s crew, under the captaincy of ageing adventurer Steve Zissou, runs into trouble.
Their vessel has been boarded by unsavoury pirates, they are tied and blindfolded, miles from help and in mortal danger. A young man is grabbed by one of the marauders, a rifle shoved in his face.
Steve Zissou puts his hand over the muzzle of the weapon and says “don’t point that gun at him. He’s an unpaid intern.”
The interns of the London digital scene may not find themselves in such imminent and serious peril during their placements - but are they being watched over by their captains?
The premise and purpose of an internship has become clouded by the changing nature of the jobs market, and of employer behaviour.
In its pure form, an internship is a learning exercise: an opportunity for a student to gain skills through work experience. The workplace is an environment distinct from the lecture theatre, and there are unique lessons to benefit from. Learning from the world of work can directly contribute to the employability of an individual once their studies are complete.
Worryingly what’s becoming increasingly common amongst employers - those in the advertising and technology sectors are among them - is the practice of using so-called internships as a source of cheap or often free labour in exchange for minimal commitment and with little to no focus on the provision of learning opportunities or career development.
Not that the common internship story is necessarily a profoundly negative one. Alison Battisby started her career interning with various media organisations including the BBC. She’s now Head of Social Media at Croud, and credits much of her success to these useful early experiences:
“When I graduated I took an social media internship at Thomson Reuters. Just getting that on my CV opened a lot of doors for me. Employers thought, ‘she’s got social media on her CV, she must know what it’s all about.’”
While she was trying to get a foot on the career ladder Alison wound up working in four internships. None of the positions were paid - not that Alison minded. The hard work was contributing to her future. In her own words: “I didn’t feel like I was being exploited.”
Stories like Alison’s are commonplace. In fact, in the advertising industry it’s become the norm for graduates to earn their stripes - and the right to be paid for their time - through a series of internships. It could be asked what exactly is wrong with that situation?
Campaign group Intern Aware would say that there’s a lot wrong with it:
“Unpaid internships exclude those who can’t afford to work for free,” says Gus Baker, their co-Director.
“There are 100,000 unpaid interns working in the UK at any one time and what that does is block jobs that otherwise paid employees would be having opportunities for graduates or anyone else might be able to get but can’t because they’re taken by unpaid interns.”
“If you can’t afford to work for free, especially in London, then you have no hope of getting absolutely essential experience, which means that you’ll be at a real disadvantage when looking for jobs.”
At a macro level, then, whether the experience provided by an internship is any good or not, if it’s unpaid then it’s contributing directly to an imbalance in access to career opportunities. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the rich and privileged kids get the experience whilst those less lucky fall by the wayside.
Unpaid internships are a poor alternative to paid placements in more than a financial sense, too. According to statistics from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (US) released earlier this year, 37% of 2012 graduates who took part in unpaid internships received at least one job offer - significantly less than the paid interns, 60% of whom achieved the same result. Most tellingly of all, 36% of graduates who did no internship at all secured a job offer too.
Don Fogarty thinks that the education system has a central role to play in solving the problem of unpaid internships. Working with the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) he’s set up futurerising.com, a website aimed at students considering a career in the advertising and technology sector. When we discussed the widespread nature of unpaid internships, he was pragmatic about the current situation:
“There are already laws about minimum wages, but they’re easy enough to get around. There ought to be a minimum wage for internships, but while there are people willing and able to work for nothing it would be unenforceable.”
“There’s a massive gap between getting academic qualifications and getting an actual job. That gap is currently filled by internships and work experience but could actually be fulfilled by people understanding more about the workplace before they get into it.”
“That’s where education comes in. Education should be much more vocational. It’s flimsy just to have two weeks work experience to get out there into the real world and expect that to be sufficient to prepare people.”
“Not only do schools need to push their students out there more, but employers need to be better prepared to know what to do with students to benefit them when they do their work experience or internships.”
The case against unpaid internships seems unanswerable. Whilst the experience that they provide can prove valuable to individuals, the widespread damage they cause in terms of limiting access to opportunities is catastrophic.
Of course, systemic change can only come about through a shift in individual attitudes. Employers can and should take a lead on the issue. The digital advertising and technology sector, a leader in so many other fields, is uniquely placed to step up. The dynamism, energy and, yes, the money flowing through the sector enables bold, trend-setting behaviour. The great news is that many agencies in the space are already on the right track.
Nicola McGouldrick, Head of Media HR at digital creative agency LBi, sees the clear benefit of paid internships:
“An internship is a great way for people to gain invaluable, meaningful experience and employability skills in the marketplace. It’s also a great way for people to see for themselves what our company is really like to work for in terms of our culture, the types of work available and the career opportunities.”
“Some of our best employees have come through our internship programme and we see this as something we will continue doing to help organically grow our own talent. Our stance is that by remunerating interns you are paying fairly in return for their contribution to the company.”