Playing the internship game
There are times when you do things you may not want to for the sake of the bigger picture.
Forging a career in the creative industries, where competition is fierce, means you may have no other choice.
When it comes to unpaid internships, it seems you are damned if you don’t and broke if you do.
There is confusion as to what companies should offer and expect from their interns. In legal terms there is no such thing as ‘unpaid internships’.
There are unpaid ‘work placements’ or ‘work shadowing’, and some government-funded schemes and apprenticeships that exempt companies from paying the National Minimum Wage (NMW).
This may be set to change, however, as the government faces pressure to enforce NMW rules and remove legal loopholes.
Lack of law and guidelines
Some companies can be exploitative and ignore laws and guidelines. Henry Muller, a Chelsea BA Textile Design graduate, undertook a two-month unpaid ‘internship’ for a fashion design label in Manchester.
He received no reimbursement for expenses and claimed unemployment benefits to cover his daily travel costs. “I left, because I couldn’t keep on sponging off my mum,” he says.
“It [unpaid interning] has become the done thing and I don’t understand why universities are not doing more to set up connections. You might as well take another year on a student loan doing the unpaid work, perhaps midway through a degree. Some courses are too artistic and don’t teach you the core skills for a corporate environment.”
Unpaid roles, however, can be useful. Olivia Berry, a BA Surface Design student at London College of Communication recently undertook an internship for JRC Imports.
She produced several designs during her month-long stint, and three were sold to high-profile fashion stores. “They are paying me £10-per-hour to work there at Christmas,” she says. “I’m going to be a junior designer, but just for two weeks because that’s all the spare time I have.”
Berry feels that she gained as much from the experience as the company: “Obviously it would have been nice to have been paid for the designs,” she says.
“Then again, they gave me the opportunity to get them on the High Street, which is great for my portfolio. I’ve shown that I can crack out a hell of a lot of designs in a short period of time.
“Every high design company gets interns for free,” says Berry. “If I say ‘no, I want to be paid minimum wage’ then somebody else will work for free and I won’t get that opportunity.”
Berry’s experience – and she received plenty of one-on-one guidance – provides an encouraging story, and one that many employers could use as a template. But inexperienced professionals, for example graduates, entering any given industry, will always be vulnerable to exploitation. Universities are, and need to be, reacting.
Professor Frances Corner, Head of London College of Fashion (LCF), believes it is not just interns who lose out through unpaid placements:
“You’ve got a lot of unpaid interns who companies don’t benefit from,” she says. “The fact that they’ve got someone for the short-term means all the interns can really do is basic low-level admin stuff. You can’t trust them to do any more because you are going to be getting rid of them.”
Less chances for graduates
The uncertainty over what benefit placements have in the short term sits alongside a wider issue, according to Corner:
“You’re not getting a lot of entry level jobs into the [creative] industries because they’re being filled by interns. How do you get young students and graduates to come through and help change the industries if you’re not providing these jobs for them?
“To have a healthy business you’ve got to have people of all ages and all experiences. Interns should get the minimum wage, at least. That would be something wouldn’t it?”
In addition to UAL support and advice through the Student Enterprise and Employability service (see left), people studying at LCF can also make use of the Fashion Business Resource Studio, which acts as a bridge between potential employers and students.
Balancing and judging opportunities, legal rights and the desire to prove dedication is the name of the internship game. Unfortunately, the rules of that game can be tricky to interpret, and gained experience alone does not pay the bills.
Until the government enforces clearer guidelines or change, students and graduates will have to make sure they know their rights.