It seems to be an assumption that – post-graduation – a large proportion of our numbers will have to work months at a time without pay. We will be pacing on the starting line of the rat race, ready to scramble for the internships and placements that could provide our CV with the ultimate employer’s seal of approval. We should be so lucky.
Internships have frequently been a focus of graduate controversy, whether it is in the blatant and yet immovable nepotism involved in many foot-in-the-door arrangements, or in the exploitation of unemployed graduates for effectual free labour. The debates are as young as the problem: according to a YouGov survey, the use of unpaid interns has increased tenfold in the last twenty years.
Our situation has become a sort of catch-22. Graduates need to go through the internships to get anywhere near the high-paying jobs, and yet they don’t have the money to support themselves through the internships. Or, they need contacts to get onto these placements, and yet these placements are the means of gaining the contacts they need (but don’t have) in the first place to get the placements. Here comes the migraine.
Change, however, could be lurking on the horizon. In early December 2012, Hazel Blears argued for the illegalisation of advertisements for unpaid internships, and spoke out against those industries that could only be reached by the self-funding Londoner. The national campaign Intern Aware is also speaking out against unpaid internships and attempting to show that most of them are conducted illegally, as placements frequently cross the line between the provision of industrial insight and the exploitation of a free and desperate labour force. According to Intern Aware, every time an intern’s challenge for the minimum wage has been taken to court, the intern has won.
Unfortunately, any law altering the legality of unpaid placements will probably not be passed this year. This means we, the grads of 2013, will have to continue the fight for employer-approval in possibly-penniless determination. However, this does not mean that our work should not be appreciated with the right reciprocating payment.
Make a stand. When soul-searching for these to-die-for placements, keep in mind the level of commitment involved. Will you be paid? If the answer is no, next consider the length of the placement. If you work for free, make it short and sweet. Anything beyond six weeks is pushing the boundary: not only due to a possible lack of personal funding, but also in knowing that – beyond this time period – your integration into the workplace will put you on the same level as the other, paid workers. You are then acting as free labour for that company.
If you don’t agree with mine, put your own time limits upon unpaid interning, and remember that there are other options. There is an entire section of the Cambridge Careers Service dedicated to available vacation opportunities, including paid and unpaid; long and short-term placements. The Careers Service also provides bursaries for students who, like me, are unable to pay their way and yet aspire to certain industries necessitating experience.
The contents of your CV should not be decided by your financial staying-power and the ease of your London commute. Where possible, give your time to those who are willing to value it properly.