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Intern Issues 2: The case for not working as an unpaid intern

This is a second post in a series. In the first post I discussed why companies should pay interns from both a legal and pragmatic perspective. In this post I look at the subject of unpaid internships from the perspective of an intern as opposed to the company. I wish to challenge the received wisdom that working as an unpaid intern is beneficial. I aim to do this by arguing that working unpaid for months on end can do more harm than good.

It should be recalled that as I discussed yesterday, my argument against unpaid internships is not an argument against young people work shadowing for a week or two and nor is it an argument against people working as unpaid volunteers for a registered charity.  It is an argument against working unpaid for what could be months, carrying out real work which deserves payment.

Self harm and unpaid internships

In many jobs, employees, at some stage, have to sell something: be it a product, a service, an opinion to readers, customers, a colleague or a boss. The selling starts at the point of applying for a job. The service a young person is trying to sell at that stage is their own labour. If they work for six months unpaid in a fashion, they have established a price for their own labour in that industry: zero. The problem that the intern will have when they have completed the internship is that the best product they have had to sell is their own labour and they chose to give it away. It does not say much for their negotiating skills. What the intern has done by working for free is debase their own personal brand and this could well be fatal. They might struggle to regain it. Someone who works in PR should understand that brand value has to be protected. If they have just sold themselves for zero, a new buyer might not wish to pay more than the previously established market price and may well offer zero for it too. The following comment was left on the Guardian website last year:

I have now interned at 5 different, well known companies in the UK and US and have been used and abused at nearly every one. There is never a sign of a possible job offer. Yes you can put it on your CV, but nobody cares. The next company you apply for a job at, will STILL ask you to work for free.

I do not doubt the accuracy of the comment. Had the person not given away their labour in the first place, they might have found someone who was prepared to pay for it. To use an analogy: if Alexander McQueen made a line of dresses, carrying the company’s brand name, which were available for sale at £30 each in the High Street, the company might struggle to sell similar dresses for £1,500 each at its Bond Street store. Graduates should think twice before selling their labour for free.

A prospective intern may attempt to rationalise working for free with the following thought: “The company did not have the money to pay me, if they could have afforded it they would have paid me, but they couldn’t so I worked for free for the experience.”  Irrespective of the accuracy of that thought, there are rational responses to the poor excuse. The first is as follows: just because the company cannot afford something, it does not mean that it should be provided to them for nothing. If someone walked into a Rolex store and told the shop assistant that they really like the gold Daytona watch on sale at £22,350 but they have no money and wondered whether they could have the watch for free, they would be laughed at and told to go away.  Given this is the case, graduates should take a similar dismissive view of a company that expects them to work for nothing. The offer of a position at zero pay should be viewed as an insult, not as something for which to be grateful. A second reason not to work for a company that professed not having finances to pay an intern is that if it were true then it suggests that the company is not a particularly successful one. One wonders how much good sense about business might be learnt from a company that struggles to make enough money to pay those that work for it.

A different form of rationalisation that the graduate may provide themselves is the idea that a fair trade has occurred: the company has obtained their labour and in exchange provided training, experience and contacts. Some may even wish to believe that what they gained in these areas is greater than what they put in. This is a rather dangerous way of looking at things. Experience and contacts are developed throughout a career, and while being paid, and training is also a regular feature of a working life.

To provide examples to see why this is dangerous, first consider the following case. Imagine that you have been working somewhere for a year in a paid position. In three months time there is a trade show that the company wishes you to attend. This show will give you the opportunity to meet a number of industry contacts and the boss is aware of this. He therefore says to you, “For the next three months I am not going to pay you because of the benefit you will get from contacts at the trade show.” Or consider this example: you have been working for a company for five years in a paid position. You are doing well. The boss says to you, “Next year, I wish to promote you to a managerial role. At the moment you have no experience in management. I am therefore going to promote you to assistant manager and  you will be trained and gain experience at managing staff. Because you have no experience, for the one year period while you are an assistant manager, you will not be paid. Have a good day and congratulations on your promotion.”

The above cases might seem ludicrous; they are designed to be so, but they do not seem to me any more ludicrous than a view that it is acceptable for a new industry entrant to work unpaid for contacts, experience and training. Someone who carries out meaningful work for a company should be paid.

It seems to me wholly wrong for a graduate to believe that they are worthless.  Others might have different views. Sam Bloom, a co-founder of the recruitment company Inspiring Interns, recently implied to me that some graduates were worthless to certain companies.  I mentioned yesterday that Inspiring Interns makes money from supplying unpaid labour to other companies. As such, Bloom’s comments are hardly unbiased. The specific example Bloom gave was of the worth of a history graduate to a mobile application development company. Here, the absolute subject the graduate has studied is irrelevant. I am not aware of a degree in mobile application development and there is no necessary reason why a graduate in mathematics, physics or engineering should know more about the subject than a history graduate. Consequently, what Sam is really saying is that the mobile application development company does not wish to pay for training.

The problem with this is exactly the same as I have highlighted above: if a graduate allows the principle to be established that they do not require payment while training, then what would prevent the company from not paying the graduate if they are taken on as paid employee when a new piece of technology is launched and its use needs to be learnt?  A reasonable answer might be employment law.  The government make clear: “If you are training for a job or you are on probation then you are still entitled to the NMW.” If the company has no care about the laws surrounding the National Minimum Wage, why should someone think that the company would care about other aspects of employment law?

Alternatives to working as an unpaid intern

There are ways for people to develop their skills in a manner that could be of benefit:

1.The Internet has meant that selling your skills is now easier than ever. Anyone (regardless of age) can be a expert. There was an 11 year old girl called Tavi Gevinson who established herself via a fashion blog to be an industry expert. In 2009, at the age of 13 and the toast of the fashion world, she was being flown to major fashion events. She blogged from her bedroom using free blogging software. As another example, this week, Lucy Martin, a MA student in fashion media production at the London College of Fashion, launched a social networking site for those in the fashion industry: FashionistaCentral.com. I do not know whether this venture will be a success but it seems to me that it is a far better use of Ms. Martin’s time than working unpaid in the PR department of a fashion company. If she is going to promote something for nothing, then the best thing she can promote is herself and her own web site.  On this note, it must have given Alex Try, a co-founder of Interns Anonymous, an immense amount of satisfaction to have landed a paid position at a PR company after an interview where he emphasised his achievements with a web site that discusses the exploitation of unpaid interns.

2. It is possible to network outside an internship. In fact, the possibilities for networking outside might be greater than inside.

I spoke to a young woman who worked as an unpaid intern in fashion PR for six months. She informed me that not only herself but the other unpaid interns were not given the opportunity to build contacts during their internship. They were not provided with a personal email address from the company and spent their time doing basic administrative tasks and even manual labour such as packing and moving boxes.

Against this case, I recall a young woman who was desperate to work in the financial markets despite the fact that she realised that her curriculum vitae was not of a high enough quality to gain an interview. Being paid in the financial markets is not the issue as on a comparative basis the industry is well paid. What is the issue is obtaining a position in the first place. This young woman realised that the only way she was going to obtain a position was via contacts and this was not easy for her as she did not have any suitable contacts that could even provide her a lead. She was savvy enough to realise that there were a number of banks based in the Broadgate Circle in the City and therefore it was likely that a number of bankers would socialise and relax in the bars in that location on a Friday after work.  As a result, she dragged along one of her friends to these bars every Friday night and soon enough started chatting with some traders, and then more traders. She made it clear that she was after a job. Her initiative impressed a number of people: she landed a plum job with an inter-dealer broker.

I mention the above anecdote to demonstrate that there are ways of gaining contacts that do not involve working unpaid. Twitter and LinkedIn are tools that can be effectively used for connecting to a whole host of people and there is no reason why a young person should not use them.

3. It is understood that the ideal work experience to have is relevant work experience, but that does not rule out the possibility that working in a different industry is not good work experience. Indeed, certain skills and type of behaviour such as time keeping, effective communication, accuracy and politeness are common to numerous businesses. If a young graduate wishes to work for a television show production company, it does not mean to say that taking a paid position in an oil company while looking for a paid position in a television company is a terrible mistake.

Conclusion

I have used this second post to criticise young people for working as unpaid interns.  I have suggested that it can do more harm than good because agreeing to such conditions suggests poor negotiating skills and debases the value of the young person on the job market.  I have suggested that there are alternatives.  My main complaint is not however with the graduates for accepting these unpaid interns, but with the companies and organisations that exploit young people in such a way. Not only do their actions impinge upon social mobility, they are potentially acting in an illegal fashion. HM Revenue and Customs should do more to enforce the National Minimum Wage. I urge anybody who believes that they should have paid at least this amount for work they have carried out to contact the Pay and Work Rights Helpline. This can be done on a confidential basis.  Companies should not be allowed to get away with such behaviour.

Acknowledgments

A number of people have been helpful via providing information that I have used in this series of articles or reading and commenting on a draft of the articles.  Some wish to remain anonymous, they know who they are and I thank them – particularly the anonymous employment lawyer.  There are certain people who I can mention.  The journalists Shiv Malik and Martin Bright are both avid campaigners on behalf of the plight of unpaid interns have been very generous with their time in making me aware of the issues. Tanya de Grunwald of Graduate Fog should be thanked for bringing to my attention specific job advertisements. Alex Try of Intern Anonymous kindly spoke to me at length. While I do not approve of his company, I would like to thank Sam Bloom of Inspiring Interns for the argument last month. There is someone who deserves a particularly special mention: Dupsy Abiola of Intern Avenue has provided me with a substantial amount of information and assistance. She deserves particular gratitude for her assistance with Part 1 of this article and her comments on alternatives to working unpaid that I have used in Part 2. While I have had such assistance, it does not mean to say that I am abrogating responsibility: any errors in either of these articles are mine and mine alone.