Archive for the 'Westminster' Category

Young, rich and working for free…


The following isn’t a direct account of my own experience, it’s that of a friend’s. I keep reading about “people with affluent parents” or “people who can afford unpaid internships”, but here is an example of that in practice.

I myself have done a handful of short unpaid internships, but luckily they were only a few hours a week so I managed to stay on the dole/in a job at the same time, and the organisations really needed the help – they weren’t for profit and did a lot for the local community. I would recommend the odd 2 week internship to those who can manage it, but the fact that I am in a good job right now is partly down to my adamant decision to never consider long term unpaid internships, whether or not I could somehow save up the money to do it. I’ve been extremely fortunate, but I was determined to hold out for a decent paid job.

My account is a clear example of how the unpaid internship culture of this country is working. An acquaintance of mine – who I met through a paid internship – has long complained to me of her boyfriend’s laziness and unwillingness to find a calling in life. When we interned together, she would tell me about how he barely scraped through his degree, as he was uninterested in the subject, and was being propped up in a house that had been bought for him by his wealthy parents. After graduating, and not necessarily wanting to enter the world of work yet, he went straight into a History Masters (presumably paid for by said wealthy parents). She told me about how he nearly failed a lot of his modules and had to resit, taking 2 years to complete the degree. At this point I didn’t want to make any judgements, some of my most intelligent and hard working friends and relatives had been through similar issues at university, however, I didn’t exactly expect the following to happen to this guy.

My friend often talked to me about how she debated whether or not to even stay with her boyfriend on the basis of him not wanting to get a job, or have any interest in a career at all. Fast forward a few months, and his ‘contacts’ have found him an unpaid internship with his local MP (his first job ever). It turns out that the job is going to be based at Westminster, and it’s unpaid. Here’s the point where most people would start looking for something else, because living and working in London for 4 months unpaid is well out of most peoples’ reach, regardless of how great an opportunity it might be. Fortunately this young man has wealthy loving parents to support him. This doesn’t seem too shocking, except for the fact that my friend keeps bragging about his £600 per week flat by the river. In Westminster. Almost every other day they update their Facebook profiles with pictures of them enjoying meals out and drinks after work. Those are the kind of treats that unpaid interns should be able to reward themselves with, right?

I don’t imagine that this has been anything but the norm for years, but it’s sad that someone who really didn’t have to work hard, or show any interest in politics at all, is on the fast track into Parliament, when I also know of really hard working individuals with years of experience, still struggling at the very bottom of the politics ladder.

Something’s wrong here, isn’t it?



Internships are for the rich

We got this email from a non-intern- priced out of her chosen industry’s employment market…

Simply put, I believe internships are only a viable option for people from high socio-economic backgrounds. I cannot afford to do free work and I will be made to suffer for it as an employer will value the 3 month admin internship one student has completed, over my 2 years of paid employment in a retail environment, just because they could take the time and money to do it in the first place.

The counter argument may be that an employer will recognise my hard work and dedication anyway? However, in my experience companies demand specific kinds of work experience. You don’t get experience if someone does not give you a chance to learn but you guessed it, they won’t give you that chance without previous experience. Thus, I expect, this vicious circle continues to haunt many other young people like me.

My friend managed to get an internship in the heart of international politics, Washington D.C. I was of course very proud of her but at the same time envious she could afford it in the first place. She will have the edge over any other competitor in future job applications having had this fantastic opportunity, whereas I, being a mere political geek and fanatic, will probably get yet another rejection email. Or I may get ignored completely as “due to high demand we will only respond to applicants requested for interview”. A thoroughly sad and pathetic image of me eagerly refreshing hotmail for months on end as I remain totally nonethewiser comes to mind.

Companies like hiring free workers, (Well that’s no surprise) but the idea of free labour is absurd. However, our government is allowing them to get away with it! Even Nick Clegg has been criticised for getting an unpaid intern. (Come on Nick, haven’t you done enough to make young people dislike you?!) If a company needs the manpower then they should pay for the labour and not fob it off as ‘work experience’. Shame on them.

So to shape all my ranting into some discernable argument, internships are a way for companies to get free admin done and as a result, employers now give it a status on a young person’s CV that those that cannot afford to work for free, are penalized for not having.

Interns should get what they want or else walk out

An anonymous contributor sent us the following article – the title might have unpleasant connotations but the intern in question is talking about getting a positive experience that will boost your CV…rather than a flat screen TV

As a complete nobody hailing from the arse-end of Nowhere, I empathise with those looking to do an internship, particularly those looking to get into journalism, public affairs and politics.

The principle of getting up in the morning and doing a full day’s work, often for protracted periods and for the sum total of zero pence is now so firmly entrenched in our economy that companies will factor in interns and rotate them as though they were permanent staff. The employer knows full well that there is no job for the poor sucker at the end of it, but the prize is dangled before them anyway. It can be soul destroying. But, done right, interning can also be fantastic. Allow me to elaborate.

 After graduating from university, I took on a piss-poor admin job. My boss was, to coin a swear, a knobjoy and the pay was appalling. Happily, the business folded and I found myself gainfully unemployed. With a few pennies (though not many) set aside, I decided I had nothing to lose and, accepting the dire state of the jobs market for mediocre arts graduates, threw myself into interning.

I haven’t eaten since, but I’ve met some genuinely lovely people, proved that I can dress myself, and gained experience that simply wouldn’t have been open to me if the internships hadn’t been there. That’s not to say, of course, that the experience hasn’t wildly differed with each employer. As with the real world, there are both terrible employers and fantastic ones, and the lot of the intern, in my view, rests on the understanding and dedication of the employer in making your time worthwhile.

My first internship was a two-week stint with a national newspaper. As I’ve said, I’m no one of any note, so a place on a paper seemed like a dream. I knew I would bankrupt myself, but it seemed too good an opportunity to turn down. Told to turn up in ‘smart casual’ and to ‘read up on my current affairs’, I expected to enter a professional working environment filled with vibrant, enthusiastic staff ready to make use of my in-depth knowledge of politics and forensic analytical mind.

 In reality, of the one and a half weeks I spent there, about three hours were spent doing anything of use. I didn’t have a desk, any tasks or indeed any kind of introduction to the permanent members of staff, things often seen as prerequisites for, y’know, helping a company in any way. I loitered like a cheap whore around the desks of writers I’d previously admired and fired out plenty of suggestive e-mails seeing if my services were required. Alas, it was not to be, and with each expenses-unpaid day I felt less and less like a human being.

Yet, while it would be easy to sob into my Tesco-own cereal (we interns dream of Jordan’s Crisp) about this state of affairs, I actually found the whole experience empowering. Seeing a disorganised sinking ship of a paper laid bare before my eyes shattered a certain myth in my mind about journalism. The knowledge that I was still young, (reasonably) clever and qualified and that this particular paper had stuck two fingers up to my offer of free labour, felt perversely liberating. As each wasted hour on Twitter ticked by, I figured it was actually their loss. In the end, I stopped turning up to the internship. No one even noticed I’d gone, while their inability to remember my name means I still get a reference, and don’t look back.

My next internship was definitely a gamble. But by financially ruining the people I love, and through a combination of putting on a posh voice and exaggerating my limited achievements, I somehow wound up as an intern for an established radio station. The new internship felt less like an extended, demeaning tour of an office and more like an actual, useful work placement. I was still earning nothing, but from day one I had a gut feeling that I would come away from the experience immeasurably more employable. Unlike the paper, I’d been sat down to a formal interview, been given a desk, a proper company e-mail account, responsibility, training and, heaven forbid, I was treated like a colleague rather than a massive inconvenience.

Within a week I knew the names of everyone in the office and they even knew mine. They respected my opinions, answered my questions and gave me serious responsibilities, not just menial tasks to keep me occupied. I got the genuine sense they understood the bargain we were making; as a graduate, I was ready to work hard for them, provided I wasn’t being taken for a ride.

 Let me be clear: in an ideal world, employers would risk taking on unproven graduates with raw potential. They’d spot your talent and invest the resources in training you up to be the best you can be. But we don’t live in that ideal world. We live in an economy where more and more graduates are competing with each other for lower and lower paid jobs. That’s an awful reality, but it’s reality nonetheless.

As an intern, what you really need to remember is that you are an equal partner in the experience: you owe them nothing, and the real reason that you’re doing this is for your own career. If you’re ignored, undervalued and treated like dirt by people, walk out. You will lose nothing but a few days, and your confidence will actually grow. If a company wastes your time, throw a spanner in their works and waste theirs.

If, however, a company seems willing to nurture your potential and is willing to take advantage of your generous offer of free labour, providing you with proper advice, the occasional dressing down and a glowing reference then, even if they can’t offer you a job, the whole experience will have been worth a punt.

 Nobody wants to work for nothing, so my simple advice would be don’t. If you’re making yourself skint, make sure it’s worth your while in other ways, and remember that not all internships are the same.



How paid staff view interns

Currently I am reading Ross Perlin’s book while coming to the end of two 3-month part-time internships, one with a tiny NGO and the other with an MP, and trying to figure out where I go from here.

I have come to the conclusion that doing more unpaid internships after this is not a good idea because it won’t look good on my CV: people will assume that I am from a privileged background and that daddy and mummy are providing for me so I can work for free, whereas the reality is that I studied hard as an undergraduate, secured generous funding to do a PhD and, post-PhD, have some of that funding saved up to enable me to explore different career options in an economic climate where every paid job I apply to has several hundred other applicants.

With regard to the assumptions people make about interns, my experience in the MP’s office is particularly amusing. On the one hand the office relies on a steady stream of interns doing identical work to paid employees. On the other hand, I have heard the paid employees making remarks that display resentment towards “rich kids who can afford to do unpaid internships.” These remarks were not directed at me, but were directed at a particular well-known journalist who is perceived to have got to her current position after 2 years of unpaid internships. Nevertheless it struck me as particularly foolish, clumsy or rude that these remarks were made in front of me when I have contributed so much to the work of the office, and when the work of the office relies on the contributions of at least one unpaid intern at all times.

On the whole, I have found both internships incredibly useful, giving me experience, knowledge and access that would otherwise be extremely hard to come by. On the whole, the paid staff I have been working with have been extremely patient, kind and generous with their time. They have gone out of their way to make sure that much of the work I am doing is related to the particular interests I specified at the outset, and they have also gone out of their way to help me with job applications, making recommendations for where and how to look for jobs, and where and how to apply. In both internships I have been either put in touch with contacts of paid employees who might be able to help me with specific jobs, or paid employees have put in a good word for me with someone they know in the office where I am applying for a paid position.

I believe that the main problem with internships is that in my experience what is happening is that an unpaid individual with no rights is doing identical work to a paid employee with full rights. Yes, an internship presents an opportunity for an individual to get a foot in the door. The danger is that in the current economic climate an internship may become the only way to get a foot in the door – and, as a result, become the norm. If the MP’s office stopped taking on interns they would simply have to reduce their workload or apply for an increase to the office budget to pay for more staff.

Ultimately this is what I believe they should do, but currently there is no incentive for them to do so. The state could provide that incentive. I believe that tighter regulation of internships is needed to ensure that unpaid interns are not doing identical work to paid employees, and that interns who are doing identical work to paid employees are paid the national minimum wage.

Social Mobility – rich platitudes as usual

A fellow campaigner with bags of public sector knowledge reminds us that ‘Whitehall’ is not where the problem lies…

One thing we should not let the Coalition do is confuse Whitehall with Government. We all know that within Parliament there is a saturation of people working as unpaid interns. Don’t let this terminology of ‘Whitehall’ lead you to believe that this practice will be stopped by the new social mobility initiative.

What the Coalition Government is proposing is an end to ‘informal’ internships within the Civil Service. Yes, you know, that place so rife with unpaid interns that erm… you might struggle to even track one down. From my few years’ experience in the Civil Service I can tell you that the one place unpaid internships are not expected as pre-requisite experience to gaining a job  is actually the Civil Service. I knew a couple of civil servants who had their 14 year old kids in to witness an office-environment during their schools’ work-experience schemes. They witnessed their parents’ often in un-glamorous roles, for a week, but this is hardly the world of prestigious social networking Clegg appears to have been referring to. The truth is ‘Whitehall’ is unpaid intern free.

The Civil Service has been at pains for many many years to recruit through ‘fair and open’ competition. Often to the extreme that previous work experience is put second place to the over-arching importance of answering competency based questions. In practice this means so long as you can show good examples of ‘communication’ or ‘organisational skills’ you would stand a good chance in a recruitment exercise. The Civil Service FastStream also offers a completely unbiased psychometric testing route for graduates showing exceptional verbal and numerical reasoning skills, followed by several rounds of testing to join the fast-track management scheme. Albeit only approximately 3% of applicants make it as far as actually securing a job, but nobody could argue that anywhere in the process is there inherent unfairness. Certainly there is nothing based on family connections, aside from the fact that a good education would hopefully have equipped you with the necessary skills. The only unfairness, and I would like to put my claim in, is that you have to be very good at psychometric testing.

The government is proposing to merely continue and extend a programme called Summer Diversity Internships, a paid internship scheme that existed under the previous administration, to give people from BAME groups and disabled people an opportunity to experience government work and gain transferrable skills. The government has announced that this scheme will now also be from people of socially disadvantaged backgrounds, and extend to people of younger age groups as well. This scheme has always paid interns and will continue to do so. In fact I remember asking a fellow young graduate, your average white British male, how he had got hold of this great well-paid opportunity, “dyslexia!” he exclaimed. Aside from him I also knew a very bright enthusiastic 17 year old. He came to our central government department via the Social Mobility Foundation who do great work in setting up internships for gifted young people from low-income backgrounds. When he spoke of aspirations to work in politics I advised him to seek MPs internships when he could, knowing the chances for someone with a lack of social connections were few and far-between. I also knew the irony of recommending unpaid work to someone from a low-income background. He was off to study Politics and History. I also knew that, having studied the same subject myself, I was about to be made redundant in the first wave of the public sector cuts and it was hard to be recommending a humanities degree in the current economic climate.

It seems a great irony to be encouraging internships in the very sector the government is currently shrinking, and in which an indefinite recruitment freeze still exists. The government is keen to stress that these savings have been at least £120m and have therefore contributed to paying off the deficit.

The government needs to start being honest with the youth of today-  real social change might occur if this internship scheme really referred to ‘Parliament.’

Internships at the heart of new social mobility policy

We’re obviously excited. Nick Clegg’s social mobility policy is taking unpaid internships to task. Articles in The Telegraph and The Guardian, as well as a report on the Today programme have underlined the importance of making sure internships are available to all, not just those whose parents can afford to put them up or ‘whisper in the ear’ of their mate at the ‘tennis club’ (does anyone actually do that?)

From the BBC:

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg says he wants to stop people getting on in life purely because of “who they know”.

As he launches the government’s social mobility strategy, Mr Clegg said no-one should get an unfair advantage because their parents have “met somebody at the tennis club or the golf club”.

He is planning to end all informal work placements in Whitehall – and will encourage businesses to do the same.

From the Telegraph:

He urged firms to make internships – often a vital gateway to a chosen career – more transparent and financially viable to the less well-off.

That meant covering out-of-pocket expenses or offering a wage.

Companies are being asked to sign a new compact including a commitment to ensuring fair access to internships.

Whitehall is set to lead the way, with Civil Service internships advertised formally from 2012.

This is fantastic. For an Internship campaign group this is surely the equivalent of Christmas. But we weren’t called ‘admirably bolshie’ for nothing. The devil will be in the detail. If I was Harriet Harman – due to question Clegg on this at 12 – I would question and ask:

Most importantly, if you read the report, detail on NMW is hazey at best.

We will continue to encourage employers to open up their employment methods, and we are asking business to offer internships openly and transparently and provide financial support to ensure fair access. This financial support could consist of either payment of at least the appropriate national minimum wage rate, or alternatively payment of reasonable out of pocket expenses in compliance with national minimum wage laws.

We want to improve understanding of the application of national minimum wage legislation to internships and ensure that employers comply with it. Where an individual is entitled to the minimum wage they should recieve it and we take failure to do so very seriously. We are updating our guidance on payment of work experience including internships to ensure that employers and individuals are clear about their rights and responsibilities. We will ensure enforcement of the national minimum wage continues to be effective, and resources are focused where they will have maximum impact. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are currently considering targeted enforcement in sectors where internships are commonplace, with a view to carrying out enforcement activity in 2011/12. Young people who feel they have had their minimum wage rights abused are encouraged to contact our confidential Pay and Work Rights Helpline on 0800 917 2368.

We hope this does not mean an update on guidance which allows employers to get out of paying interns minimum wage. The law as it stands is currently very clear. If you work set outs, doing set tasks then you are due minimum wage.

The Independent writes:

HM Revenue & Customs will launch a crackdown in professions such as law and journalism where work experience is commonplace, to ensure that people are paid the national minimum wage or receive out of pocket expenses.

Ironically – the Indy is currently being taken to court for not paying an intern. Crucially the or receive out of pocket expenses” offers an easy get out clause.

Anyway – lets not be picky just yet. Lets celebrate that internships are center stage in the news agenda for at least one day.

Lets not forget Nick Clegg has advertised for unpaid interns in the past…

Interns Anonymous

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