Hey, recent graduate of 3-4 years with textbook knowledge of your industry and tens of thousands of dollars in debt: do you want a job? Well, we can’t give you a job because you need to pay your ‘societal dues’. But, we can offer you a very lucrative, very beneficial, and well respected position as our unpaid, bottom rung, office toddler. You may even get your own desk!
We’ll supply you with work to keep you occupied. Perhaps, phrase it as though it’s a big deal or a good experience but in reality they’re chores we don’t want to waste time doing ourselves. Do you like carrots? Cool, ‘cause we’d like to dangle an unspoken and alluded to carrot of future employment in front of you. We won’t directly say “this will lead to you getting a job here”, but we definitely worded that in the Seek ad you came from. We’ll always be polite of course, saying hello when you walk in and goodbye when you leave. Other than small talk, there won’t be much of a bond with the other employees, just ham-fisted encouragement. You’ll first try having lunch at the local cafe but soon realise the effect on your bank account and switch to the home-packed sandwiches instead.
By the end of the 3 or 4 months of coming in, 4 or 5 days of work a week, committing 7 or 8 hours of your day, we’ll shake your hand, smile and give the nod of approval. Glimmer of hope perhaps? Nah mate, “all the best with everything”. Remember grabbing the brass ring is only for people with 3+ years of work experience, don’t you read job descriptions?
Well, that’s the Victorian Bitter perspective on internships. The pill travels down the throat real hard when you learn work must be done for free. For graduates, it’s a necessary evil in order to get a foot in the door and network with the almighties above us. At least that’s what we’re assured by our Uni lecturers. This is the only conceivable way of gaining credible industry experience, apparently.
But if you happen to have an open mind and want to get a genuine and worthwhile experience from an employer, then internships are the way to go in some cases. Accepting appropriate internships that only require you 1 or 2 days a week is perfectly okay to do. Especially if the work is something that challenges you, develops your knowledge and guides you career wise. It has potential networking opportunities and the possibility of being referred to for other jobs that may be available down the line.
An internship should never be a one-sided affair, both parties stand to gain from the agreement. The employer gains an extra set of hands for their business without having to pay the 5 figure annual salary while the intern gets another industry experience ticked off on their CV and the wealth of knowledge that comes with it.
So why the negativity with internships? Is it unethical for an employer to hire someone who is mostly likely desperate to find work in their field and willing to donate their time if there isn’t a guaranteed chance at employment? Is it exploitative for an employer to offload remedial tasks on interns that provide no benefit to them and without compensation? The common stigma of interns getting coffees, picking up dry cleaning or doing any other personal chores don’t really occur as often as people think. Interns are doing work. Work a paid employee would do.
In a study on the prevalence, nature and impact of unpaid work experience in Australia, Andrew Stewart, the John Bray professor of law at the University of Adelaide, found 58% of people aged 18 to 29 had performed some kind of unpaid work experience. Less than a third of people they surveyed were offered a job at the end of the internship and less than half received a letter of recommendation.
Well, not receiving a letter of recommendation seems down to the intern not requesting one. You probably should ask for one of those before saying “they didn’t give me one”. Nonetheless, it’s no surprise seeing the lack of job offers upon completion. Most businesses that offer internships regularly cycle interns every few months without a desire of employing them.
According to Fair Work Ombudsman, “Unpaid work experience, job placements and internships that are not vocational placements will be unlawful if the person is in an employment relationship with the business or organisation they are doing the work for.”
The legality of unpaid work is essentially a grey area in Australian law. A lot of power is held by businesses. Creating that incentive of employment entices graduates to keep taking part in the lowest job title on the corporate ladder.
However, Universities often have regulated internship programs embedded in courses where undertaking a set number of days or hours is a requirement. Universities create an agreement with businesses to provide adequate work for a student and an environment where they can learn. If anything goes awry during the program, the Uni is there as the student’s safety net and comfort. Unfortunately, internships without big papa Uni to hold your hand have the inherent risk of going south. Especially if a person is fairly new and inexperienced, they often overlook the warning signs or are maybe too trusting with employers.
“To work out whether or not a person is an employee each case must be considered on its own facts. It is a matter of working out whether the arrangement involves the creation of an employment contract. That contract does not have to be in writing; it can be a purely verbal agreement.”
Fair Work does explain the difference between fair and unfair unpaid work fairly well (lotta fairs there) and I would definitely recommend checking out their write up here.
Personally, I’ve been a part of two internships since I began studying Communication Design in 2014, until this day where I’m a year removed from graduating in 2016. My first internship was for a small Advertising Agency in Fitzroy. It was required for my Uni course to do 70 hours of interning all regulated by them. I was a 2nd year student at the time and pretty much cold emailed a bunch of ad agencies in Melbourne until I got the response I needed.
Overall, the experience was what I expected for a student with limited knowledge and expertise. I was delegated tasks of client corrections for different medias that needed fixing. Mainly working off Adobe Photoshop or InDesign software was pretty straight forward as I knew what I was doing. My duties didn’t exceed that, however, and after a couple of suggestions to the Creative Director if it was possible for any copywriting tasks or assistance, ultimately I decided to move on after the summer was over.
Fortunately though, I did maintain a connection with the Creative Director and after I graduated, thanked him for the advice and help he gave me along the way. He was a nice guy and that work experience is on my CV because there was still value in it.
Currently, I’m interning for the lovely site you’re reading this on right now, Speaker TV. Obviously I’m gonna have nothing but nice things to say, because the corporate overlords here at this arts and culture website will surely press their thumb down on any dissenting opinions alternative to their capitalistic, conglomerate viewpoints.
No, I’ll be the first to say I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time writing and assisting here. I get to come in 1 day a week and write about whatever I want and it gets published on a website. It’s hard for a graduate to really complain about being afforded creative freedom because there’s very few workplaces that offer something like this. If money isn’t the compensation, freedom of choice is the next best thing to offer an intern. At least there’s an ability to grow and challenge yourself with something new. (This paragraph was brought to you by Speaker TV©®™)
Personal experiences aside, interning seems to be more successful in moderation. For both parties, the benefits are clear and simple to understand. Experience for cheap labour: Is it unethical? Purely contextual of course, but from the perspective of a graduate currently interning, its okay to accept the low commitment work experience. Minor sacrifices can be made early on in order to progress your career. Your self worth can be maintained, your CV can fill up and maybe your career mindset take you in a new direction. Think of interning as the antipasto entrée to your career. Hopefully that gets you hungry for more or shifts your appetite to the seafood section on the menu.
Ultimately it’s a lot more productive than sitting at home mass applying for jobs that someone else deemed you’re under-qualified for. The piece of paper you paid 50k for does look nice on a PDF doc, but doesn’t light up the eyes of an employer like it should because degrees are handed out like condoms at a health clinic. It’s an unfortunate reality that not enough job opportunities are open to a younger generation. The best revenge is letting that motivate yourself into proving you’re worth more than them in the end.