As a student about to enter my third and final year at university I’m becoming increasingly nervous at the mention of any of the following: employment, careers, jobs, full-time work, graduate schemes etc. My fears of ending up jobless are very real. If you want to aim high, students are told, and go into a competitive career, you must get some work experience. Just those two words ‘work experience’, along with ‘internships’ and, crucially, ‘unpaid’ send shivers down my spine, and not in a good way.
As my second year at university got underway I started thinking about my career prospects and decided I liked the idea of publishing, amongst other things. A quick look on the various publishers’ websites told me that work experience is a good way of getting a foot in the door. So, I sent cover letters and my CV to every publishing house in London that I could find with absolutely no luck whatsoever. Whilst I was a bit miffed that my cover letters didn’t impress enough to persuade the publishers to take me on, I was also starting to panic – did this mean I could not go into publishing? Were my chances ruined?
However, my thoughts soon took a different direction as I began to seriously think about the whole notion of a two week work placement. What can someone learn from two weeks of work experience – where they are often given admin duties – which a newcomer (sans experience) couldn’t learn on the first two weeks of the job? Why is it so essential in the eyes of the employer, when it is for such a limited amount of time? A search online told me that there were people out there who had loved their two weeks in a publishing house and had been called on in the future to do more work. On the other hand, others weren’t so joyous about the situation. One blogger said that after two weeks they had only learnt how to use the photocopier. Moreover, another article, written by a paid worker in a publishing house, said educating or informing those on a work placement about the company was advised against – their bosses told them it was a waste of time, as the student could put it on their CV, and that was enough. I’m unsure as to how work experience and internships differ in the eyes of the law, but unpaid internships are certainly illegal if the intern is being made to do proper work as opposed to being trained.
If you’re not getting anything out of work experience what is the point of doing it? Surely the idea of being placed in a company was originally intended for the student to ascertain whether the career seemed right for them, and not the other way round. It’s not as if placements are paid, and in most cases expenses include only travel within the London area, if that. So what about those who do not live in the London area and do not have any friends or relatives to stay with? And what about those of us that are skint, our student loans having run dry? The word discrimination springs to mind.
Luckily I live in Greater London, but even then travel would have cost me £15 a day – that’s £150 for the whole two weeks. I probably could have made my available funds stretch for one placement, if that. One publishing website said the company offered full expenses (London area) and a free lunch. Another caused my blood to boil with their paltry offer of travel for London Zones 1 and 2. Zones 1 and 2! Talk about severely limiting the field of keen applicants you have to choose from. To me this is blatant discrimination, as only those who live near could afford to travel in, or those whose parents are wealthy enough to sustain them. And let’s face it, you have to be pretty wealthy to live in central London anyway. Are these companies really going to follow the American route of thought, and act as if England exists of London and nothing else? How many fantastic would-be editors, marketers and designers that reside in Newcastle and Yorkshire, or Devon and Cornwall are they missing out on? It all smacks of London snobbery to me.
It is hard not to come to the conclusion that such companies (not just publishers) are exploiting students and other people who are keen to work for them. If work experience is as vital as they claim, thousands are missing out because of their postcode. On the other hand, if it is not a vital entry route to the industry, those that are doing mindless admin tasks for free are wasting their time, especially if they learn nothing from the process and end up out of pocket. And how can companies demand work experience as a pre-requisite when they are unwilling to foot the bill? Having money does not mean that you are more committed to the career.
A close friend recently did work experience for a PR company, and apart from realising from it that she was by no means interested in a career in PR (perhaps a benefit of the placement) she was left insulted after being contacted by the company to do more work. Will I be paid, she asked, to which they replied no. How utterly disgraceful, how exploitative, how offensive to expect someone to work for free! I’m sure she can safely say that she will never apply to work for such an immoral company who has no respect for its employees, or even the law. The robbers couldn’t even squeeze out a minimum wage. As I type this I’m nearly destroying my keyboard, I’m so angry. Clearly I have been labouring under a misapprehension, as I always thought employers paid those that seemed suitable to work for them…is that not how employment works?
I was recently told a story about an investigation into a major fashion house; it was unearthed that in one of the departments there were two full-time paid workers and ten unpaid interns. How such can such an atrocity be easily explained away? Just because we are students and our prospects of getting work are, according to the media, grim, does that mean we have signs over our heads saying ‘I’ll work for free?’