Time to rethink #unpaidinternships

It all began with a retweet!

I retweeted the tweet below by @chloenelkin.


I wouldn’t have shared it if I didn’t think it was a decent opportunity. It would be bad form to judge this particular scheme by the details on the company website.  The advert says: We offer an internship scheme to recent graduates who are considering public relations as a career option. Internships last for a minimum of one month and expenses are paid. A love of the arts is essential and the successful candidates should be enthusiastic, organised and trustworthy. This scheme allows people to get a feel for working with CNC at our Soho office. 

Is it wrong to assume that ‘last a minimum of one month’ implies it is a full-time position? Quite frankly this is all a bit shit. After reaching out to them on Twitter they replied ‘Do agree but we’re trying to support young people wanting to work in PR. Doing all we can in that regard as a small company.’ This suggests it is a job, not just a golden opportunity. Don’t get me wrong I’m not singling CNC out, I’m sure there are worse offenders out there. But what we need now more than ever is transparency.

Unpaid internships and #ChampagneFridays

It is rather unfortunate when a company offering an unpaid opportunity like this is at odds with one companies “Our Team” page: “When REDACTED’s not dodging Soho’s cobbles in her signature stilettos, she loves spending time on the Italian ski slopes or visiting international art fairs with clients. Her penchant for fine dining and bubbly means that corks are often popped in the REDACTED office for #ChampagneFriday“.  Mind you these unpaid internships offered by profit making companies are not the same as voluntary work youngsters choose to do for not for profit arts organisation. It is interesting to note that companies like Cornershop and Kate Morley PR do not use unpaid interns.

Its not about whether you learn or not…

Its about whether you can afford to learn without getting paid or not. Who benefits? The ones who can afford to learn and gain this enriching experience without getting paid. Cameron’s Britain? These sorts of schemes are a prize for people who can afford to participate in them. There are so few opportunities and it is such a competitive industry. If you are unable to work for nothing then you are priced out of potential jobs. Most interns have to supplement internship with extra work (so do lots of ‘proper’ freelancers).

The criteria for getting unpaid internships with these companies is therefore affordability and not ability. In a Twitter poll I ran ‘Are unpaid internships ever ok?’ 15% said ‘Yes’ 58% said ‘No’ and 27% opted for ‘Sort of’. I am confident the results will be similar if run on a larger sample as well.

Are unpaid internships ever ok?


Unpaid internships do provide valuable experience 

Does the younger generation really have a choice if the only option they have is an unpaid internship? Nobody reading this will dispute that being part of a small team as an intern can be a valuable experience for any young person. In 2009 when I graduated I was all at sea until I got an internship at the Theatre Royal Haymarket with the education department. I was also Team Leader at a branch of Superdrug. During my time on this placement I had experience of working in a busy environment. Nothing life changing, just database administration, answering enquiries and supplying departmental support. Subsequently I have gained invaluable experience of working in professional theatre contexts. I am sure most of my colleagues have similar experiences to share.

Its time to rethink

Unpaid internships could create a closed shop, but surely not offering these opportunities produces the same? The arts cannot afford to shut out the next generation. There has long been a debate about young people to work for free to get a foot in the door. This whole issue isn’t ‘breaking news’ but it is not ok and looks like it is still going on. It’s clear that as well as being ‘amazing’ for a young person it also can have cancerous effects on society’s mobility. I have been quite distant for some time from the nuts and bolts of internships, but I have kept a strong interest in the philosophy and practices of learning and participation within the arts sector. I will be glad if I can play my part in addressing what has been a crisis and is now a challenging murky area. We have often neglected the fact that we need to produce citizens before we produce theatre professionals. You could characterise this in an Arthurian way. We re-draw the sword from the stone, we wield it to fight for what we stand for and set up a new kingdom. To everybody I say; we have all got some rethinking to do.

Some useful links 

Intern Aware: http://www.internaware.org/

The Law: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/national-minimum-wage-work-experience-and-internships