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The great unpaid internships debate

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As students up and down the country begin to think about summer jobs, Polly Grice considers whether unpaid internships are an excuse for employers to take advantage of students or an opportunity for valuable experience and the chance to move on to something bigger and better.

The dispute over unpaid internships has been raging on for a while now, and it gained momentum earlier this month as a bill to ban the advertisement of unpaid internships failed to be heard in parliament. It’s an issue which needs to be discussed, but whatever the outcome of that talk may be, it won’t help this year’s graduates.

At the start of any career you’re expected to get some real world experience under your belt, and the first port of call for many is an internship or placement. The trouble is that most companies just don’t seem to be able to offer students or recent graduates pay for the work they do, which can make doing those internships very difficult.

One job being currently advertised says the company is looking for an intern to work 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, for six months. The position is unpaid. Assuming you get paid lunch breaks, even at minimum wage the salary for those six months would be well over £6,000.

I’m sure this company will be inundated with applicants, but is this a sensible approach? Apart from missing out on over £6,000 worth of wages, you’ve got living costs to consider and there’s definitely an argument that unpaid internships price out poorer candidates who won’t be able to fund themselves through the placement.

As a budding journalist, I started looking for work experience last summer and responded to an ad from a local publishing company seeking editorial interns on a one-week unpaid basis. Already living in the area, I figured that my living costs would be minimal and as the position was only for a week I’d get good experience and not lose out on too much money. I had an incredible week writing articles, sub-editing and being part of a dynamic company, and at the end of it they invited me back as a freelancer, which was a paid position. I have spent the last year getting incredible experience in publishing which looks great on mv CV and has taught me vital skills, all stemming from impressing the editors during that one week unpaid trial. I didn’t just go back for the money (although it was nice). My main motivation for seeking an internship, like many students, was the experience and not the pay.

A great piece of advice that I was given at a recent careers talk is: “work for free, but don’t work for nothing”. Whatever internship, job or placement you’re doing, you should always think about what you’re getting out of it. With unpaid internships, you might not be getting any money, but if you’re getting practical experience, building contacts and learning more about your chosen field, you shouldn’t feel as though they’re not worth doing. If you’re making the tea and sorting the mail however, there’s definitely a problem.

If you can find a paid internship, you’re one of the lucky ones. It may seem like finding a needle in a haystack, but as I’ve proved, they do exist. Those in the know will tell you that internships offer the chance to 'test drive' particular jobs or sectors, in order to decide whether or not they're right for you. The value of this can't be underestimated.

However, internships have recently become synonymous with unpaid labour. The fact of the matter is that the job market is incredibly competitive and every little bit of experience helps. If you can find a paid work experience placement, you’re one of the lucky few, but if not, unpaid internships are still a viable option. It might mean that you have to take a part time job to save up some money to fund your living expenses, but with the job market only getting tougher, you’ve got to do whatever you can do get ahead - which might mean working for free, but it shouldn’t mean working for nothing.  

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