I recently put up a sketch on YouTube that seems to have struck a chord with some people. In it, I play a stereotypical Sloane called Orlando braying on his phone to his friend about all of the internships he has been on. Each placement has been acquired through contacts and is unpaid, but Orlando is able to blithely go from one to another with reckless abandon because mummy and daddy are picking up the bill. For Orlando, unpaid internships are the perfect stepping stone to a job, but for those that without his financial backing, they stand as a blockade to crucial industries.
Now before anyone points out that I'm writing about unpaid work in a blog that I'm not being paid to write, let's be clear what these blogs are. They're essentially an online resource where everyone and anyone can post in order to get their views out there, sort of like a glorified Twitter. They provide a platform and people like me use it - at least no one is under any illusions. As Obama joked with Arianna Huffington at the White House correspondents' dinner "Give them a round of applause. ... And ... you don't pay them! It's a great business model." Of course the Huffington Post does pay its regular staff and it is stated AOL policy to pay everyone a decent living wage, including interns. But not everyone has this same policy; many media outlets, politicians, fashion and arts organisations expect young people to move to London (paying the eye-wateringly high rents) and work for nothing at the beginning of their careers. In some cases, they even expect the intern to pay for the pleasure of working with them, as with the dubious practice of auctioning internships. It's difficult to think of a greater embodiment of wealthy people being able to purchase advantage for their offspring and puts me in mind of an excellent Simpsons scene where Montgomery Burns attempts to buy a place at his alma mater for his son, who is so stupid that Yale set the price of entry as being 'an international airport'. At Westminster School's internship auction it was a case of "You want your son to work for Fabergé? Well, Fabergé could use an international airport."
If internships are not paid, they exclude people simply through wealth and geography. A talented young fashion student from Leeds will simply not be able to afford to live and work in London without an income unless they have rich parents or are willing to take out some seriously reckless Wonga loans. And all that with no end in sight in terms of a paid job. It's shameful to waste such talent, but it's also problematic for the very companies that are relying on unpaid interns, as they're seriously reducing their capability to hire the best people. In the long term, it'll be our economy that suffers, given that we rely so much on industries that require constant innovation and creativity. It's also bad for society, as the top jobs are dominated by a narrow social grouping. That Russell Brand struck such a chord with his incoherent manifesto to liberate ourselves through not voting is reflective of the current malaise in politics whereby they all seem the same, a fact that will only be exacerbated by recruitment through free work.
But some organisations have managed to wean themselves off this tempting covenant and find the money to remunerate workers. I have been working to publicise an organisation called Creative and Cultural Skills who help set up paid internships by offering part-wage funding to arts and cultural employers. If the highly competitive cultural sector can do it, so can others. There even seems to be some political will to tackle this problem, with Nick Clegg coming out strongly against them, though he was somewhat undermined by his party colleagues subsequently advertising unpaid positions. Fundamentally, employers need to realise that whilst they might be saving a little money in the short term, they are squandering the opportunity to hire the best people for the job. Orlando observes in the sketch, "intahnshups are like crabs, you tend to get them from your friends and their parents." I hope in future that these important points of entry to industry are more a case of what you know rather than whom you know.
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