You’re sixteen years old and you’re talking to the school’s career advisor. Maybe you have no clue what you want to do with your life, maybe you are dead-set on the job of your dreams – either way, the wheels are set in motion and soon you’re packed off to university to chase the education that will have you speeding ahead of the rat race.
Only when you get there, you realise that despite your degree and your Mary Poppins sized bag of enthusiasm, the career you want will fall from your clutches if you don’t have that special something called experience. Experience is something that comes from spending three months of your summer (usually in London) working your butt off for zero pay.
Why are unpaid internships a thing?
If it were just slave labour, it would be a hard sell. Unfortunately, working for nothing can pay (pardon the pun). The idea is that you work for a company for free and in turn they provide you with a real-world education. Unpaid internships are supposed to benefit YOU more than they do the employer.
Of course this will vary from job to job but even just having a companies name on your CV can go some way to securing a real-life grown-up job in future. Unpaid-internship advocates argue that you have to be prepared to sacrifice in order to succeed but the unfair nature of unpaid schemes understandably raises eyebrows - even the UK government has started to crack down.
Are they just exploitative?
According to the Sutton Trust charity, an unpaid internship in London would skin one bright-eyed, big-dreaming young person around £1000 a month in London and £827 in Manchester. Without the savings or family support to back you up, for many, they are totally out of reach.
As big-shot journalist Stacy-Marie Ishmael tweeted out this summer, ‘unpaid internships are functionally classist and racist, and are an active impediment to improving representation across our industries.’
Unpaid internships can mean that the biggest and best jobs are often reserved for the wealthiest echelons of society (or those that are lucky enough to be living slap-bang in the centre of London).
So why are we still doing them?
Although minimum-wage legislation makes many unpaid internships technically illegal, the government admit that there have been no actual prosecutions. Many employers and workers aren’t sure who is classed as a worker and who is classed as a volunteer and even the official lines are blurry.
They do provide a way to learn skills that you would otherwise have no access to. Plus there’s the fact that particularly in some sectors (media, performing arts and law and accountancy firms we are looking at you) it can be hard to get ahead without them.
But I can’t afford one!
So you’re already drowning in a mountain of uni debt and mummy and daddy didn’t set you up with a trust fund? Take a deep breath and keep the toys in the pram (you might need to sell them to fund that internship). With a bit of determination, there are ways you can charge ahead in the world of work anyway.
Get involved on campus
Still a student? Then don’t sweat it - there are plenty of opportunities to get experience from the comfort of your university campus. Envision yourself on Radio1? Get your own show on student radio. Do you dream of battling it out in court? Get yourself to debating society.
HUSTLE on the side
It’s not the easy route but if you can crack the side hustle you don’t just get experience but you get MONEY. If you want to make it as a writer, get yourself a blog and start typing. If you want to work in fashion, work as a stylist’s assistant – experience in the real world + pay = the dream.
Network, network, network
The people you study with today will be your colleagues and even employers tomorrow. The more people you network with, the better your chances are at success in the job market. Because the sad truth is there is something in that ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ trope.
Get a paid internship
Be fussy! There are paid internships out there; you just might have to search a little longer and harder. Channel your inner Kanye West and believe that you deserve to have your cake AND eat it.
Suck it up and save
If you are dead-set on that unpaid internship, who are we to get in your way? It might take a while to get there but saving for an investment in your future isn’t a write off. Take out a loan from the bank of mum and dad or spend a few summers saving some money and apply for the internship in a few years time.