The plight of the 'workie': Why unpaid internships and work experience ruin it for everybody
An edited version of this blogpost appeared in Dolly Alderton's newsletter the Dolly Mail
Let me tell you about the worst thing I did on work experience.
I was at a national Sunday paper and a reporter sidled up to announce she had a task for me. She looked a little shifty which, in retrospect, should have been my first clue.
She explained that they were doing a story on a woman who had, at one point, been a Page 3 model.
‘Right,’ I nodded enthusiastically - on work experience you’re enthusiastic about everything.
‘So,’ continued the reporter, ‘we’d like to know exactly how many times she was on Page 3.’
‘Right,’ I said again with another enthusiastic nod. Poor naive me had not yet realised where this was headed.
‘So could you, erm,’ the shiftiness was now palpable, ‘go through all The Sun Page 3s from 1982 to 1986 and make a note of how many times she appears?’
Well obviously I said yes.
Over the next four hours I went through four years of girls baring their breasts, making a note of each time Lucy from Hertfordshire made an appearance. I saw 1,460 pairs of naked boobs that afternoon.
(One thing I wonder to this day: would she have asked a boy to do it?)
On a side note, those pictures were oddly wholesome. The models all had that Girl Next Door look. They smiled in a sweet, uncomplicated way. They were always somewhere nice, like in a field full of flowers or beside a waterfall. There was nothing coy or sultry in their pose; it was more shoulders-back, chest-out: here are my boobs. I certainly don’t mourn the demise of Page 3 but there was a strange innocence in those images.
At the end of four booby hours, I sent a detailed email to the reporter: Lucy from Hertfordshire had appeared on Page 3 17 times. I attached a list of the dates she’d been featured.
‘Holy guacamole!’ I got back. ‘Thanks so much - very thorough! We’ve dropped the story now but really appreciate it.’
I am not alone. Almost everyone who works in a seemingly glamorous industry - journalism, fashion, PR, even the charity sector - has a catalogue of grim tales to tell of their work experience days.
I’ve been thinking about that rite of passage recently after I met a girl who works part time behind a bar and the rest of the time as an unpaid intern for fashion designers.
At this year’s London Fashion Week, she and 41 other interns were summoned to a famous designer’s studio by text message two days before his catwalk show. They arrived at 9am and left the following day at 3pm.
I saw pictures of the show: the famous designer beaming with his arm around a model-of-the-moment wearing one of his fabulous cut-out gowns; fashionistas perched on the front row mesmerised by the beautifully-clad models marching down the runway. And behind this seamless piece of theatre were 42 young men and women who had pulled a 30-hour shift, been instructed to bring a toothbrush and change of clothes, and had not received a penny for the privilege.
Touch-Wood Dear-God-Please my days as the work experience lackey are over and yet the system still makes me seethe. I am no expert in economics or the labour market but as far as I can see unpaid work experience and internships are bad for three reasons.
Firstly, it is wrong for anyone to work without pay. Many work experience tasks - stuffing envelopes, monitoring email accounts, staring at Page 3 girls - are tasks that employers need doing and whoever does them should be paid for it. I don’t agree with the ‘internships are modern day slavery’ line as the analogy seems gross but surely it is fundamentally wrong to ask someone to work without pay - and ‘expenses’ don’t count.
Secondly - and goodness I feel like I’m writing a polemic - it’s damaging for the labour force. I was glancing through Gorkana (a website that lists journalist and PR jobs) and was shocked to see unpaid internships advertised.
Many entry-level roles are now no longer paid positions - they have become neverending internships. I once interviewed a UCL grad who had interned unpaid for a peer in the House of Lords for 18 months. What chilled me was that this bright young thing had developed something akin to Stockholm syndrome.
He repeatedly intoned how grateful he was for such an opportunity, how the peer had promised to use his considerable networks to find him a job (dodgy in itself), and how very kind the peer had been to him - kindness which didn’t extend to parting with any moolah.
The bright young thing had been privately educated and clearly had funds which allowed him to work for free for a year and a half.
Which brings me to what is most troubling about work experience and internships: they ensure that certain industries are reserved for the privileged.
Unpaid internships are fucking expensive for the intern. You have to be loaded to afford to work for free. You either live with your parents or have someone else covering your rent. Unsurprisingly, only those with the Bank of Mum and Dad behind them can do it.
Take a look at certain industries - fashion, the art world, publishing - and you’ll find that almost everyone speaks with a certain accent, went to a certain school, grew up in a certain way. Only these people could afford to work unpaid for the obligatory six months before landing that coveted first job.
Exceptional people from less privileged backgrounds do find their way in, but the unexceptional ones don’t. How is that fair when these industries are stacked full of unexceptional privileged people?
And these are the people who are choosing which books are published, which art is promoted, what clothes will be ‘in’ - and they all share the same narrow white middle- and upper-class perspective.
It makes it less interesting, less varied for everyone - from the people working in those industries to the people who pick up a book and look around a gallery and see what has been chosen by that narrow set of ‘influencers’.
I fear this post is becoming one long howl, but in another way I’m glad of it. I want to remember how much I hated being the intern, how I burned with resentment when I received an email referring to me as the ‘workie’, because it is frightening how quickly you forget.
I have mates who went through the unpaid conveyor belt, found their way in and landed those allusive paid positions - the pay is paltry but at least there is a monetary transaction going on. One pal was desperate to work in theatre production. She worked unpaid for months while I did the same in publishing. We would moan about how deeply unfair it was over coffees we couldn’t afford.
Then one day she got her break, she landed a job at an agency which represented playwrights. Two weeks later we met again - for Prosecco this time, we’d come up in the world - and she bitched to me about the interns she managed, how none of them were as dedicated as we had been, how incompetent they were, what hard work it was managing them.
I wanted to yelp: But they are not getting paid! And hey, don’t you remember, that was you a fortnight ago?
After 1,000 odd words of diatribe, I’ll tell you about the work experience that changed my life.
I was 26, in a job I hated and wondered whether journalism just might be the thing for me.
At a party, I met a girl who worked for Woman and Woman’s Own magazines and she kindly wrangled me a week’s work experience there.
I took it as holiday from my job and from the moment I stepped into the office I felt I’d found ‘it’. The rows of girls yammering on phones, clunking receivers down, yelling across the desk about ‘stories’, passing torn out pages of newspapers from person to person, the tip tap type of fingertips flying across keyboards - a thrilling, noisy urgency.
I found two stories that week and wrote them up. On my last day, the features editor called me into an office. She was not a soft and cuddly person but she was an extremely decent one. She told me they’d pay me £100 for each story and offered me three days a week paid work at the magazine.
I quit my job, took a massive pay cut and never regretted it. I learnt so much and it all stemmed from that one week of work experience.
It’s still troubling: I got it through a friend and I was lucky to be able to do that week unpaid. The chance to get a taste of journalism was invaluable.
And it’s what work experience should be: a favour to the intern, not to the employer.
It should be an opportunity, a chance to sample an industry, a taste, a challenge, a bit of fun. A week to work out if it’s for you.