Say ‘NO’ to unpaid internships

Who benefits from unpaid internships?

I’ve heard all the arguments. That for newly-qualified but inexperienced grads, they’re the only way to get relevant experience, contacts, or your foot in the door. Especially in competitive industries.

And I know that most people who take them up understand that they’re not particularly fair. Probably most companies also realise that they’re not necessarily getting the best talent. Just the richest talent.

This is not a naming and shaming sort of blog post. I don’t want to give any more publicity to those companies who cynically exploit young people’s desire to get the all-important work experience through not paying them for their labour. Whether that’s through an unpaid internship – or even more greedily – through making them pay for it.

But I wonder whether unpaid internships do work. Do they lead you to a job at the end of it? Are they the only way to get experience, contacts, or your foot from the door? (Evidence from the pioneering site Graduate Fog would seem to suggest they do none of these: leading in fact, to yet more unpaid internships.)

I’d say that almost anything else you can do will get you the experience you need.

In Guardian Career’s Live Q&A on Getting into Publishingtoday, one of the panelists makes an interesting comment on how to stand out.

He writes:

“The people that really stand out show that they love books, are interested in the industry and have a variety of experience – working in book shops, reviewing books for their university or paper, going to book festivals (sometimes organising their own), writing blogs, work experience placements at other publishers etc.”

(By the way, we’re talking two-week work placements here, not an unpaid internship stretching out for months.)

In a different Q&A on getting into film, a producer said:

“A lot of people are asking things like ‘do I have the experience to do this’, ‘should I do this MA’, ‘do I have to have gone to film school’…

Of course, film school, MAs and trainee positions are absolutely amazing career development opportunities. But if these aren’t an option for you, then make your own opportunities. Carry out the role that you’re trying to achieve straight away. If you want to be a producer, produce something. If you want to be a director, direct something. If you want to be a festival programmer, set up your own film event. Of course, these things are much easier said than done, but if you achieve it, then you’re forced out of your comfort zones.”

Rather than making other companies richer on the back of your (unpaid) labour, get the experience you need under your own steam. Show your dedication through writing a blog, getting involved in projects, and making your own experience.

It shows more about you if you can get a project off the ground with little to no budget than it does if you “pay” your way in.