Every student is familiar with it: the internship or – on a smaller scale – the ‘work experience’. As a student I have learned to differentiate: work experience lasts from one to four weeks and is usually ‘full time’, whereas an internship is longer than a month and can be full time or part time – depending on the generosity of the company. If the internship is part time, the intern has the possibility to earn money elsewhere as internships are unpaid and not every student or even graduate can afford to be without income. (Global Radio, for example, happily works with full time interns for three months and even the V&A does not hesitate to take interns for a period of six months working four days a week. Unpaid, of course, in both cases).
Work Experience as well as internships are meant to help gain an insight into the working world and develop skills that are relevant to obtaining a paid job. So far so good, but it rarely works out. Firstly, the intern often needs to have highly developed skills in the first place to get the internship and then, secondly, entry positions are often given to people already in the industry, who were made redundant in their previous job.
As if getting a foothold into the industry wasn’t difficult enough, American writer Ross Perlin describes in his recently published book ‘Intern Nation’ the latest trend: Internships are ‘being auctioned’. In the Guardian he writes:
“The US-based website CharityBuzz.com alone has sold well over 100 internships at American nonprofits, fashion houses, media outlets and so on – the most astonishing surely having been a one-week internship at Vogue with fashion doyenne Anna Wintour, which was snapped up in April 2010 for a cool $42,500. The money will reportedly benefit the Robert F Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights” Could there be anything more ironic?! And he continues: “Half of the internship bidders are parents looking to snap up these experiences for their children.”
Perlin himself is a graduate of Stanford, SOAS and Cambridge. He also speaks eight languages. Despites these assets to his name, employment is not what followed his degrees but rather a series of internships in different countries.
Anna Winter reviewed Perlin’s book for the Observer and has also been an intern. She not only pointed out the social injustice which Perlin addressed but also the affect it has on the intern. Employment not only means financial security but also a personal development, so constantly being denied an employment brings “the frustration of not being able to become a ‘proper’ adult. Perlin incisively documents this ‘prolonged adolescence’ experienced by many interns.”
This internship carousel has also been experienced by Nikola Richter who already wrote about it in 2006. It was published in Germany under the title ‘Die Lebenspraktikanten’ and follows the lives of seven graduates, who aim to get a job through internships or setting up their own business. The characters are fictitious but the stories are based on true events.
Back to Perlin, his ‘Intern Nation’ reveals that ‘almost half of all internships are illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and this mass exploitation saves firms more than $600 million each year’. But there is also good news:
In October 2010, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) appealed to all unpaid journalism interns, who could claim up to £232 per 40-hour week. The NUJ writes:
‘Former interns can claim up to six years after they finished their unpaid stint, through the county courts. The National Minimum Wage rules do not apply, however, to students on work experience placements. Internships tend to be longer than work experience, with a greater time commitment and deadlines, and involve making a contribution to the work of the organisation.’
The NUJ’s campaign is a result of a judgment given at the Employment Tribunal in Reading in November 2009. The tribunal judged in favour of Nicola Vetta, who worked as an intern for a London production company. During the internship she only received expenses, but after the internship she sought payment with the aid of the Broadcast, Entertainment and Cinema trade union, BECTU. According to the NUJ: “The tribunal recognised that a worker is entitled to the National Minimum Wage (NMW), whether or not they have agreed to work for nothing.”
But this generation of interns does not only fight for its rights, it has also organised itself. The website ‘Intern Anonymous’ offers a forum for interns to share their experience. It covers a wide range of areas from Architecture, Fashion, Graphic Design, Education and Law to internships at Westminster.
And finally, there is hope: Some internships actually do provide training and useful experience – and land a job! Benedict Cooper interned with Arts Educational Schools in the administration department. When, shortly before his internship ended, the current Arts Administrator left, he was offered the position. “I was incredibly lucky”, he says. Since then, he has progressed within that prestigious drama school.
To find out more about the world of interns, particularly in America, you can join Ross Perlin reading from ‘Intern Nation’ at the Pages of Hackney. To reserve a seat call 020 8525 1452 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.