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Internships May Be Modern Day Slavery - But Don't Take That Chance Away From Me

20/01/2014 11:40 GMT | Updated 21/03/2014 09:59 GMT

The last few months have proved rather interesting - I graduated from university, got married and moved to Belgium. That's unfortunately where most of the interesting stuff dried up. I was hoping, with French, Spanish and my native English under my belt, that I would prove a real asset to the Belgian people, who would jump at the chance to offer me a bottom-of-the-heap internship, with the promise of a job at the end of it. I was excited for things to get under way- to finally live under the same roof as my partner, to complete an unpaid internship for a relatively short length of time (as all seemingly were in Belgium), before taking on a full time job. This type of employment would be fine, for a while. Train tickets around Belgium are 5€ for anyone under 25, and I would make a packed lunch to take with me. We had savings- and this, guaranteeing a step onto the career ladder, would be utterly worth it.

Except as far as I could tell, internships were only offered to those in full time education, and who were at least following a very specific university course that would teach them all they needed for the job. So, for someone like me, interested in anything communications based (marketing, PR, journalism...) - I needed to be following said university course, and taking a sandwich year to complete an internship. With a degree in French and Spanish very much completed, so far, so bloody awful.

The next 7 weeks saw the worst case of Catch-22 I've ever had to deal with. I spent most days on the phone, asking companies if they took on interns who weren't students... then striking them off the 'hopeful' list. At the same time, I was trying to secure an internship in England for the summer- because at least if I couldn't forge a career right here, right now, at least I could later down the line. I was applying for top companies, who were paying graduates. Other, more low-key internships would crop up now and again, but generally for an immediate start, and initially I ruled them out- preferring to stay with my husband. I wasn't succeeding...

Because the world and his wife graduated this year with a 2:1 in something or other. And, with almost no real experience in the fields I was applying, no-one would take me on a whim. It doesn't really matter that I would definitely flourish in the job, and work my arse off, because I haven't done it for someone else in the same field before, for free. It's the famous student slogan- 'you need experience to get experience'.

After Christmas I hung about in England for a few days and heard of an almost unpaid internship going for January-February (£10/day). I was interviewed, and started the week after. Ecstatic, relieved, over the moon etc doesn't really describe the feelings of a 22 year old finding out she has a place in the world after all.

The bottom line is this: to start a career, you need experience. To get paid experience (i.e. from a big firm), you need to have done unpaid experience. The higher the pay, the more experience you should have already done. And for those like me, with no tangible experience, you have to save up, bite the bullet, and take one on for a couple of months. If all internships were paid, I wouldn't be able to get my first one, because most companies simply wouldn't be able to afford it. And undertaking a Masters course would prove almost a necessity (which, by the way, is far more expensive than an internship- and still doesn't guarantee anything). I may have roughly £500 to complete this current job- but could not be further away from the £15,000+ I would need to stay in education.

Recently I met a man who ran a thriving publishing house. He is utterly against unpaid internships, and was very clear in saying he would not take on an intern unless he could pay them minimum wage. So far, so good. But then it slipped out- if he had £12,000 to pay someone for interning, it would be a far better investment to pay someone else who had experience £18,000, as a real job. So whilst he is in theory prepared to pay someone for an internship, he hardly takes him or her on, as he prefers people who have experience in the industry. So a different company has to shoulder the blame for that free labour.

I wake up at 6.15am to take the train to work (commuting from mum and dad's, the intern's lot) and most days I wake up before the alarm goes off, buzzing for a new day. This is a pretty strange feeling, I must admit, but it's bloody brilliant. So, like I said, don't take this opportunity away from me - it's my only chance to get on the career ladder. And whilst I know there are thousands less fortunate than me, we all know what needs to be done- a few months in a random job, saving what we can- and a few months interning, to take that first step on the ladder.