Working for Free
When I graduated in July 2010, I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to do with myself. I quite enjoyed writing, and really enjoyed those aspects of my degree that had let me find a ‘creative voice’. Looking through various career advice websites, such as www.prospects.ac.uk, it was indicated that the job roles that best suited my skills and preferences were all within the media industry. Great, I thought, I’ll see what’s out there. I crafted a cover letter showing off my talents and forged a CV that was ok-ish, and started applying to various entry-level positions. I poked around small local publications, called up offices, sought out any route I might be able to exploit. Eventually, I was offered an internship by a small local paper for 5 weeks unpaid work experience. Whilst I didn’t really like the idea of working for free, I realised that I was in no position to argue – and besides, they were going to give me lunch! A paid role would surely follow once I’d gained enough experience and shown my dedication in working for free.
In the last 7 months, I’ve taken part in three internships, none of which have paid me any more than travel and lunch expenses. The media industry – like most others – is bursting at the seams with applicants, and gaining experience is now so valuable for the job seeker that employers can offer very little by way of remuneration for an intern’s hard work. Standard internships will run from 3-6 months, with expenses paid – if you’re lucky. I’ve had countless friends who’ve worked for more than 3 months with one company, and when the internship comes to an end, they’ve had nothing more than a smile, a ‘thank you’ and a nudge out the door.
One of the most difficult things I found about interning is probably the mindset. How can an employer get away with making me work for free? Why should I? It really doesn’t seem fair! As soon as I managed to overcome that mindset, the easier it became to understand the value of the internships. I had to learn that if I was really dedicated to breaking into that dream career, then working for free was just part of that process, and a brutal fact of the times.
There are other frustrations that go hand-in-hand with interning. For one, I’ve found the geography of industries in the UK impossibly unfair; the black hole of London sucks in so many of those companies who would offer me the best internships, and unless you live close enough to the capital, chances are you won’t be able to live on expenses alone for more than a few months. I spent 6 weeks surfing around the sofas of some of my London based friends, spending a great deal of savings in the process – and I’ve been fortunate. Many of my friends have spent the best part of 3-6 months living out of a suitcase in pursuit of a way in.
I also found that the list of support options for those interning for free isn’t a long one. Due to the nature of the Job Seekers allowance, any internship that saw me working more than 15 hours a week resulted in me being ineligible for support. When I phoned both the local council and national advice lines to ask if any support existed for those who were interning with no pay, the reply was very simple: no. The allowance is there for those who are seeking a job – if you’re working more than 15 hours a week, then you clearly aren’t seeking hard enough.
The best support I received was from my friends and family – desperate pleas and favours is all I’ve had to go on. It’s been a very uncomfortable lifestyle – living in someone else’s space with nothing more than a suitcase – but I couldn't find an internship closer to home, so that’s what was called for. Any longer than 6 weeks/2 months though, and it probably wouldn't have been worth it!
I eventually learnt that the best thing to do was not to become bitter with the situation – which is often easier said than done; I made sure that I was giving my employer my all - you never know who might be impressed with your efforts. It's been tough to come to terms with the fact that many months of my early career will been spent working for free, but I realise it won't last forever, and the more experience I gain through opportunities like this, the more likely I'll be to find that paid job.
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