Graduate Blog

Internships – Which Way To Go?


After working at The Dreaded Supermarket for what seemed liked an eternity, but in actual fact was just one very bleak year employment-wise, I feel like I’ve turned a corner. Finally my career is officially ‘burgeoning’. No more will my creative input be limited to stacking shelves with a flourish. I will be faced with real challenges. I can be excited about getting up in the morning rather that grimacing at myself in the mirror as I don the garish green uniform. I’ll be meeting like-minded people who don’t bore me to death on a daily basis. I’ll feel knackered by the end of the day, but in a ‘this job is so rewarding’ way instead of a ‘this job makes me feel like a pack-horse’ kind of way.

Accept there’s one huge issue. I have been offered an unpaid ‘internship’. The only time I’ve ever really heard that word be used in practice is on MTV’s The Hills, when Lauren Conrad moves to Los Angeles to go to Fashion School and interns at Teen Vogue. To an 18 year old watching this, it was all so glamorous. Gorgeous, sleek office, Starbucks coffee, her boyfriend sending in flowers every five minutes, and taking her out to lunch (and breakfast, and dinner) every single day of the week. Designer dresses, trips abroad, hosting celebrity parties…

I’m not deluded, I know my internship won’t be like that, but I’m finding it really difficult to be happy and pleased about it AT ALL! Looking past all the fluff, I have this horrible, tight anxiety inside me, nagging away. At first I thought its just nervousness: “I don’t know what to expect, everything’s changing, it’s out of my comfort zone, and it’s all happened so fast”. But it’s not just that. I think it all stems from not being paid for what I am being asked to do.

You might say: So what!? You have whinged solidly since you have graduated that you are ‘stuck in a rut’ and would do anything for a mere sniff of that dream job, and now it looks like that is happening, you’re getting critical! How ungrateful!

I agree with you on that one. This is a brilliant opportunity to get myself on the first rung of the career ladder. A platform to establish myself, showcase my talent, skills and work-ethic in the right role, in the right industry. It’s a chance to make the most of my strengths and personality. “If you were passionate and ambitious you would do it” – you might say. I could even get on the pay-roll if I really impress!

So what the hell is wrong with me? An internship is good news isn’t it?

Now do not get me wrong, this is not about ‘money’. If I was obsessed with making a tonne of money ASAP I wouldn’t have done a Drama and English Lit Degree now would I? I would have become a banker or something! Yes, I like nice things and often spend like it’s an art form in itself, but I do have principles. Luckily, I still live at home with few overriding responsibilities, and my parents would support me every step of the way, (financially too) if I followed my heart. Not that I would take advantage of their generosity, but ‘money’ in the literal sense is not the issue here.

I just can’t help thinking though that this ‘internship’ business is a all a bit… exploitative, and after a bit of digging on the internet I discovered that there are there are Government Ministers, leading Universities, independent campaign groups and national newspapers that all see the flip side of the internship coin.

I’ve found out that internships may not only be unethical and unfair but also – potentially illegal!

Intern Aware, a group which campaigns for fair and paid internships, quotes Employment Law which states: “People who work set hours, do set tasks and contribute value to an organisation are workers and are entitled to the minimum wage.”

As soon as I read this, I realised that this is what I had been so worried about! Will I be complicit in some dodgy, underhand dealings; sly, cheap, greedy bosses getting something for nothing? Unpaid internships exclude those who cannot afford to work for free, so am I condoning elitism? Knowing that perhaps many capable Graduates were put off this internship simple for the fact it was unpaid makes me feel like I haven’t gained it fairly and squarely.

Even those who can afford to work for free, (which isn’t many – I’ll be working 12 hour weekend shifts at The Supermarket to support myself, as well as 9-5 five days a week for the internship) shouldn’t have to. It looks like employers are taking serious advantage of desperate graduate employment figures.

If these companies are feigning ignorance and brazenly flouting the law, how is a prospective intern supposed to believe that the ‘experience’ and ‘training’ they will receive is relevant and valuable for their career prospects? Is an internship just a clever guise for a ‘skivvy?’ who will be cast off at the end? Even Apprentices get paid SOMETHING, and they are teenage school/college leavers! Graduates are more qualified and experienced yet we get no money at all? (Not to mention having the added pressure of tuition fee loans to pay back!)

Maybe this is just another smack in the face from my old nemesis. Mr. Reality. I thought after I graduated I would saunter straight into a stable, reasonable paid, reasonably enjoyable, qualification relevant/appropriate position. Nope, supermarket for 12+ months I’m afraid.

Once I’d accepted that blow, I’d engage in ridiculous silent fantasies whilst sulkily carrying out yet another mundane task in a string of mundane tasks that make up my mundane working day: ‘One fine day I’ll look back on my humble beginnings from on top of the world with a wistful sigh and tell a funny story about where I’d started out. To which everyone will laugh and be shocked at how far I have come and say ‘That must be why she is so grounded’…I thought any day now I will leave for a proper job and my life will really begin.

But no, an unpaid internship is what I’m offered. If I feel this way, is there any point in doing it at all? How can I give it my best shot and be all smiley and enthusiastic when I know this. Am I being taken for a fool who dismisses their right to be paid? If I know it, they will definitely know it. How embarrassing!

I’ve obviously got some real thinking to do: Are unpaid internships a necessary evil, a begrudging sacrifice, all in the name of ‘experience’ and ‘training’, or just plain wrong? In March 2013, the Internships Bill which sought to ban the advertisement of unpaid internships and regulate the conditions of their employment, failed to clear parliament. This said the Campaign itself and the support it has gathered, is still going strong.

The Independent argues that: “By taking unpaid work, you are saying to your employer that you don’t deserve to be paid for the work you do and perpetuating a culture that needs to change.”

Granted, but can graduates really be blamed for snapping up internships, however wrong they may be?

They continue: “With an average 73 applicants for every one graduate role employers are more stringent in their application process and graduates are forced to mark themselves out of the hordes of other applications they are competing against. It often boils down to experience that separates candidates.”

What’s the alternative? Clearly the law won’t be getting tougher on this issue any day soon, and with the way things are, if I don’t take it somebody else will and I’ll be stacking shelves for another year – No thanks!


About the Author

Sophie Bicknell Sophie Bicknell

I graduated from The University of Worcester in 2012 with a 1st Class BA (hons) in Drama and Performance and since graduating, have continued my part time job I had whilst at university at a well known supermarket. Drama and Theatre has, and always will be my passion, therefore I find creative outlets in performing with local groups, watching plays and musicals, and writing theatre reviews for local newspapers and magazines. I hope to find long term employment in a career that is exciting, rewarding, and challenging. An ideal career would be within a Theatre based environment, or Drama within education.

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