Internships in the Modern Office


Last week, my eye was caught by an article in The Guardian that detailed the the growing anger at the existence of unpaid internships which particularly widespread in creative and legal industries. The main point of contention seems to be that offering experience for no wage both exploits the people filling these positions and discriminates against those who can’t afford to work for free.

I am doing an unpaid internship – which is why I’m living at home and, therefore, need to be back in time for Mama’s homecooking – and I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. Generally, I agree with the whole exploitation/discrimination rebuke but I think simply demanding minimum wages to be added to these positions would be missing an opportunity.

I have now been at my job for a little over a month and have settled nicely into a daily routine. In the morning, I arrive and vaguely mumble hellos on my way to the kitchen. What I’m mostly focused on is making a giant pot of coffee which I will nurse throughout the day.

I made a conscious decision before I started work not to offer to make teas and coffees for everyone. This might strike you – and my colleagues – as rather rude but, for silly reasons like pride and self respect, I really, really didn’t want to become the tea boy. My father told me a story about his first job sometime in the early 70s. His boss called him into his giant, luxurious office and preceded to hand him a wad of cash that totaled more than my father’s monthly wage. He then ordered him to ‘go and fetch a box of cigars, boy’ as quickly as he could. Admirably, this didn’t make my father dissolve into a pool of rage or self loathing.

After gulping down some precious black nectar, I trawl through my inbox flagging things that I need to do for the day. Sometimes this is alot, sometimes it’s not so much – like any sector, the third (read: do-gooders’) sector has its busy times and its not so busy times; this seems to be largely dependent on what the big kids (i.e. the UN et al.) are up to or, in our case, whether the bad guys (i.e. dictators, corrupt military leaders, the Conservative Party etc.) are being particularly violent or insane at any given moment. Either way, I make myself a list and then plough my way through it until it gets to the time where I have to leave the office so I won’t miss my dinner. Not the most complex routine, granted, but it puts me at ease.

Of course, throughout the day new things come up: things have to be edited or written or tweeted; research needs to be done; people need to be briefed before interviews; contacts need to be found; something, anything has gone wrong with a computer and, as a young person, I must know how to fix that, right?

Being able to react quickly and effectively is a great thing to practice and the ability to do so – even in a limited, intern-ish kind of way – garners a little bit of respect from your colleagues. Just enough respect for them to occasionally ask you to help them in the tiniest ways on their projects. This is amazing. As the bottom of the office heap, being someone who is not automatically seen as a hindrance to other people’s work feels like a big step forward.

Starting an internships – as with starting university – necessitates a thorough review (read: lowering) of your personal expectations. You’re going to have to prove yourself.

Being the dregs of an organisation isn’t all as bad as it sounds nor is it simply a reflection of your (lack of) wage.

  1. Lowered expectations: Not being paid means that I cannot be expected to have much responsibility for my work output, which, personally, I find relaxing and frustrating in equal measure. People mostly have lowered expectations of interns and, accordingly, don’t let them make any decisions at all which is frustrating. On the other hand, whenever I do anything that is half way competent it amazes and surprises my superiors. Anything at all. It’s a bit like being a baby: kind of irritating and useless, yet, somehow, strangely endearing to adults.
  1. Underqualified: While it should probably be that everyone working gets paid, in some sectors there are only so many jobs. Because there are only so many jobs, the qualification and experience expectations are much higher. As someone with intern level qualifications and experience, I cannot expect to be paid the same amount as my superiors – anyone with an actual job/anyone – or to be hired for those jobs. It seems that the real issue might well be the lack of entry level jobs.
  1. Interns are not firefighters: Crucially, interns should not be used to plug gaps or solve problems in organisations. If you are using interns to do key jobs – ones necessary to the functioning of your organisation – then you should be either paying them or seriously rethinking how you’re running your organisation. ‘Interns’ in this position are not actually interns, they’re just exploited workers.

I think internships need to become things that both employee and employer get positives out of. Sure, we low-level shmoes don’t want to be exploited but we also don’t want to be paid minimum wage to do a crap load of data entry for six months and come out without any real skills. Employers love having cheap workers around that can help them out but they don’t want to have to give useless people actual responsibilities.

Sometimes these things are, straight-up, exploitation and the bosses involved should be prosecuted – I have no qualms about that and I absolutely, unequivocally condemn those cases. I suspect, however, that most of the time unpaid internships are not created by a cackling industrialist, whip in hand, who forces his underlings to make shoes for 23 hours a day in coal pits. I think most of the time the problem is that there either isn’t a low level job available or that the employer hasn’t properly planned what that job actually is.

Internships have got to be properly structured and organised so that they give the employee the opportunity to gain new skills and experience whilst doing something useful. If employers respond to public pressure about exploitative internships by simply slapping the minimum wage onto jobs that don’t fulfil any of those functions they will have failed. They need to buckle down and actually design effective internship programmes and, boy, is that going to take a lot of coffee.

Written by Rowan Emslie , more at his blog here


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