The Great Intern Debate

26th January 2013 by

So, you want to be a journalist? You work hard at school, get good advice and take the right courses at college and University. You do very well academically and also get involved with the student newspaper and a small, self-published zine that you and a few friends distribute around campus. It’s your third and final year, and the deadlines are coming thick and fast, but it’s also time to start thinking about jobs – what are you going to be doing this time next year?

You’d like to find an entry level job in a well-established newspaper. It’s competitive, but you know you’re talented, and you’ve worked hard these last few years. You want to work your way up and gain some experience, but your dream job is definitely as an editor for a national broadsheet.

So you start looking for jobs, start firing off applications and start crossing your fingers. But nothing is coming back. Some of the companies don’t even bother to reply, some send a polite letter back – a longhand “thanks, but no thanks”. Eventually, one company gives you some feedback; the only difference between you and the applicants who got interviews, the only thing holding you back – they had done internships.

This situation may be fictional, but it is far from unrepresentative. The jobs market in general – but certain professions in particular, including law, journalism and medicine – are increasingly looking for internships as an informal prerequisite to employment. But are internships a good way to “get a foot in the door”? Are they a good way for employers to sort the “wheat” from the “chaff”?

government report from 2009 into widening access to “high-status” jobs doesn’t think so: it described a system based on internships as “grossly unfair” and noted that it reinforced inequalities. Internships are often unpaid, and range from a few weeks over summer to an entire year. The quality varies greatly as well, with some interns gaining a lot of training and experience in a variety of roles within the organisation, and others feeling like a dogsbody, performing the tasks that are beneath paid employees.

One of the big problems with unpaid internships is that they are a massive barrier to social mobility. Many people cannot afford to do unpaid work, and with a disproportionate number of internships based in the capital, it can be particularly difficult for poorer people living outside London to take this first step in their career.

But if you think this undermining of meritocracy is subtle – it gets worse! Not only are some internships unpaid, there has been a recent trend in auctioning off internships to the highest bidder! Can you imagine if this was done with jobs? It would be a national scandal!

According to Intern Aware, internships may not just be immoral – in some cases they may actually be breaking the law. The word “intern” has no legal meaning in the UK – in the eyes of the law you are either a worker or a volunteer, and if you are a worker you are entitled to the minimum wage. Not only are you entitled to the minimum wage, in fact you can’t even waive this right! The legality of unpaid internships has been put to the test in the courts on a number of occasions. Both Nicola and Keri, were successful in defending their right to the minimum wage, and both received back pay for the work they had done.

So is the idea of an internship inherently immoral? Should they all be abolished and replaced with low paid, entry level positions? Should they at the very least all be paid? Well, perhaps not. Many internships are mutually beneficial for employer and intern – there is a high degree of training involved, experience of many different roles within the organisation, and they pay at least minimum wage, widening access. For the employer, they provide a stream of talent, whilst reducing turnover of entry level positions.

There may be exceptional circumstances when unpaid, or voluntary, internships might be both legal and moral. According to the law, if you are deciding your own hours and your own roles, and if you are doing the work for altruistic reasons, then you may be a volunteer – if not you are probably a worker and are entitled to the minimum wage. A good rule of thumb may be that organisations that mostly rely on workers (ie all profit-making companies, most public sector organisations and many not-for-profits) should also pay their interns, and only organisations that mostly rely on volunteers for their day-to-day running (most charities and some not-for-profits) should also be allowed to take on voluntary interns.

So you want to start a career in journalism? Or one of many other “high-status” professions that seem to expect internships? Well, I hope I haven’t put you off! There may be many unfair internships out there, but there are also many which are mutually beneficial and fair. And with a growing army of people campaigning against unfair internships – Intern Aware, the NUS and UCUInterns Anonymous, and the TUC, to name but a few – and with the law firmly on our side, there’s plenty of hope for a brighter future for young people.

 – By Andy Rossall

BP blah blah… arggggh

13th May 2011 by

Isn’t it nice when corporations give something back? BP, formerly known as British Petroleum (also once laughably known as ‘Beyond Petroluem’*), has a Trading Challenge Roadshow that it takes to schools.

It’s an enterprise workshop that has young people trading oil prices. The facilitator actually tells them to ‘buy low, sell high’. So good to see organisations working to instill values and healthy ambitions in young people.

There are so many things wrong with this, I barely know where to start, but here are a few of them:

–       teaching young people gambling is immoral by most people’s standards

–       teaching young people that making money is the single most important thing is morally dubious by my  standards

–       BP’s plans to invest in the horrific tar sands development (causing rare cancers, pushing indigenous people off their land, stripping ancient forest, polluting water supplies, enormous carbon emissions, stupidly energy and water intensive extraction process etc. etc.)

–       BP’s part in the disappearance of community activists in Columbia

–       BP’s oh so respectful push to resume deep water drilling in the Gulf Mexico just a year after the infamous oil spill (which continues to spill oil as I type)

–       BP’s plans to drill for oil in the Arctic, one of the few untainted places left on earth

–       BP’s safety record in general

–       errrrr, climate change

* An extract from BP’s website:
‘Beyond petroleum’ sums up our brand in the most succinct and focused way possible. It’s both what we stand for and a practical description of what we do
An extract of my reaction to that:
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

Mobiles, social media and mindbending technology- Part I

3rd February 2011 by

Anyone who’s ever met me will know that I am not a fan of mobile phones or anything beginning with i. I have a mobile and am as reliant as the next person on the internet. But I don’t like it. I wish all this information was in my head and not stored as bookmarks on my screen, I wish I could organise my life with people and not with my inbox. The problem with the internet and our constant connectivity is that, whilst it makes everything possible all the time, too much choice makes a simple life impossible most of the time.

Right now as I type I have seven tabs open on my screen, half of these are things that I am in the middle of reading. Everytime I pause for thought, instead of staring at the wall, I check my emails. This is arguably more productive than staring at the wall but I don’t think it’s helping my thought processes. Some days I find it really hard to read an entire article in one go.

I am clearly not the only one finding my concentration span disintegrating under a barrage of information. A friend confessed this week to checking emails in her lectures. Almost every conversation with friends involves some fact or figure being checked on someone’s i-phone, or being treated to photos of what someone else had for breakfast. Why do you even need maps anymore when the world wide web’s worth of information is all in your pocket? Because I like maps and I reckon lots of other people do to, otherwise why do people keep hanging them on the wall?

I am really really glad that I did not grow up with this much technology constantly vying for my attention. The advent of mobile phones has done more harm to education than a bulldozer in a public woodland. My experience working in schools and colleges is that some young people are umbilically attached to their phones, they would rather you remove their thumbs than their texting technology and, whether talking to peers or adults, cannot hold a conversation without their own personal soundtrack piped into one ear. At least when we wrote notes we were also practising handwriting, spelling and grammar. I’m sure some schools have managed to successfully ban phones from the classroom, but these handy pocket devices are just that and so they will always sneak their way back in. Now every young person has one it’s only a matter of time until technology mimics life with a Passing Notes App, a GCSE Cheat App and a The Dog Ate It App.

I’m not the only one concerned about all the the constant ringing, tweeting and flickering that’s interrupting our lives. The New York Times has written lots about how the internet is changing our brains. “Technology is rewiring our brains,” says Nora Volkow, one of the world’s leading brain scientists. Constant bursts of information are not just disrupting in themselves, they’re undermining our ability to focus even when we’re not online.

Whatever the effect of technology on our brains, it will be heightened in the young people who grow up without knowing what it’s like to wait for a roll of camera film to be developed, what it means to make someone a mix tape and what socialising is without social media.

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