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Is The Price Of Experience Too High? The Dilemma Of The Unpaid Internship

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At this time of year, when graduate applications are coming to a close and hope is wearing thin, I start to regret not having done a vocational degree such as medicine or accountancy or even wine-tasting; at least that way when people ask me what I'll be doing this time next year I can confidently inform them that I'll be pacing the A&E department of an NHS hospital, or mastering the budget for a leading corporate business. Or possibly lying horizontal in a vineyard in Southern France.

But unfortunately I am in no such position, and subsequently my future can only be described as being somewhat in jeopardy. Therefore, I must do everything in my power to pad out my CV in order to make myself an attractive candidate for future employers. I must resign myself to the dreaded internship.

Recently I was invited for an interview for an editorial internship with one of Britain's lad mags. The man that interviewed me [read: sat back in a reclining chair, feet on the table] made me go through pages and pages of photos of girls without many clothes on, asking me to tell him what I liked, what I didn't like, and what could be improved. As a woman I was affronted; as a wannabe journalist I was ready to sell my soul for any opportunity to break into the industry ("Goodness, she has very nice breasts. However, I don't like the knickers she's wearing, they don't match the sofa she's grinding on. Perhaps enhance the d├ęcor?").

And then I was informed that my precious internship would be an unpaid position lasting a minimum of three months. In case I dared question the legality of this set-up - unpaid work is undeniably in conflict with National Minimum Wage legislation - he reminded me that I would be gaining invaluable experience that would lead on to bigger and better things. Not that this was the case with the last intern, who was encouraged to take time out of her degree to do 12 months of work at her own expense, and has since disappeared off the radar. I needed answers.

Would I be guaranteed a position at the end of the internship? "No."

How did you get your job? "I knew a guy..."

Should I get a degree in Journalism? "I couldn't possibly say."

Reader, I did not take the internship. Sometimes I think about what might have been had I said yes. Maybe I'll kick myself a year or two down the line; maybe I won't. Who knows. But I recognise when I am being exploited which unfortunately is what an increasing number of young people are experiencing, although they do not always recognise it.

But as already stated, to force someone aged 16 or over to work for free is to avoid paying them a minimum hourly wage that employers are required by law to provide. A legal loophole is to have interns 'volunteer' at an organisation, rather than be officially employed by it; if a company goes along with this understanding of the contract then the intern is under no obligation to do anything of worth to the business. Still, it runs the risk of having to explain to your next potential boss that you were fired from your last position for turning up, hungover, five hours late to work dressed as a fairy.

Unpaid internships contribute to inequality. Some of us are lucky enough to have a permanent base in London, where most of the UK media activity happens, and parents who are generous with the financial support. Most of us are not. The majority of students depend on summer jobs to fund the next academic year, let alone subsidise a break aboard a private yacht in St Tropez. One can be a bright, hard-working individual, but lack of money may mean that you are denied the opportunity to shine, whereas less ambitious persons who can afford to make the coffee for a month find themselves suddenly extremely well-connected. So should students go for the consistent bar work, or get stuck into an unpaid internship that looks absolutely scrumptious on the ol' Curriculum Vitae? I suppose it all comes down to how long one can survive without money for. Truth be told, in this economic climate people can barely survive even with it.

Demanding paid internships is not arrogant or ungrateful. It should be recognised that valuable work deserves a wage, if not legally then at the very least because it ensures a good work ethic. But with employers promoting the 'experience' aspect of the internship, and titillating us all with the possibility of a permanent job at the end of it, students are queuing up around the block for unpaid placements.

The economy is a-tumblin', and desperate times call for desperate measures. Frantic employment-seeking individuals are willing to do anything to safeguard their futures, and financially stricken businesses are doing everything they can to cut costs.

Sign here for the opportunity of a lifetime. Let us open your eyes. Impress us. Maybe we'll offer you a job (but we probably won't - after all, we weren't willing to legally employ you in the first place). Never mind. Thanks for coming. Doesn't your CV look so much prettier?