Posted by: robbedlyric | January 17, 2012

Internship Angst

Internships and unpaid work have been quietly in the news this week. Cait Reilly, a geology student worked for two weeks shelf stacking in Poundland for no pay. If she refused she risked losing her £53 a week Jobseekers allowance. As a recent graduate I have contemporaries in Cait’s situation, being made to take unsuitable positions for little or no benefit and frankly I’m lucky not to have been put in that situation myself.

The graduate has to do work that gives them no usable experience and someone who would benefit from such experience is denied the opportunity. Let’s be honest, the only person who benefits from that sort of situation is the company who gets the free labour.  The ethics of making someone work in a private company doing a minimum wage level job that would otherwise have cost said company money in order to “earn” their taxpayer funded benefits disturbs me.

Internships in other sectors have also been under discussion. One of the major arguments against internships is the threat to diversity in certain areas of the workforce and social mobility. It is feared that they are biased towards the wealthy and those who are already based in major urban centres, particularly London.

I knew that taking an unpaid internship was necessary for me to gain the experience I needed. Simply volunteering in my spare time just wasn’t feasible. It would have taken me years to get the diverse range of experience required by employers by just volunteering. However it was also a huge risk, I would be giving up paid employment and the security that it offered. When I began to look for placements I was upset but not very surprised that most were in London, very short and offered no financial help whatsoever. There is no way that I would have been able to afford to relocate to London for three or six months to work voluntarily.

Also there would be no guarantee that I would be doing anything worthwhile whilst on these internships and I certainly would leave with any tangible qualifications to prove my skills. There is a hope that in the arts and heritage sector at least this may become a thing of the past. A paid internship scheme with Museums Galleries Scotland has recently been launched with the aim to provide the 20 (very lucky) interns with core skills.

It also, was open to graduates with no previous museums experience which caused a certain level of controversy amongst Museum Studies postgraduates. It was felt by some that this was an example of positive discrimination against more qualified applicants.[1] This begs the question what about those with no degree at all and no museums experience? In an informal discussion it was pointed out to me that even ten years ago the interns and volunteers here at Dove Cottage were far more diverse than they are now. The scheme itself was more informal, there was no application process however there were people from different backgrounds, with and without university qualifications. All the interns on this year’s scheme have at least a bachelor’s degree and those without postgraduate qualifications are in the minority. I believe that this is a sad indictment of how difficult finding employment in almost any sector, not just arts and heritage has become.

Will unpaid internships ever really be a thing of the past however? I think not. Not least because the experience they offer provides an invaluable bridge between academia and the workplace which can often be a bit of a shock. Experience can be gained in a structured, hands-on and professional environment, something that no course at university can give you. We can only hope that more institutions offer some sort of qualification for the interns’ troubles for it will never be possible for most places to pay their interns and that is simply down to lack of funding.

I really have to stress that I am incredibly lucky. When I began to look at getting my internship experience I could never have imagined that I would get a place on such a wonderful scheme. Here at Dove Cottage I get a training bursary which works out around the same amount as Jobseekers allowance. I also am able to claim housing benefit to cover my rent, something that would have been impossible in London. In addition at the end of my year here I come out with a QCF qualification in Cultural Heritage as well as all the valuable experience I’ll gain day to day. It worries me that so many of my peers are not so lucky.


[1] Geraldine Kendall, ‘All Work and no pay”, Museums Journal, January 2012, pp.28-31, p.28. See also, Letters,  Museums Journal, November 2011, p.21

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