The Great Unpaid

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you want experience in the creative industries you must first have experience in the creative industries. As those wishing to get their foot in the door scan the jobs and opportunities pages of countless magazines and websites they are continually up against walls of needing previous experience or demonstrable passion for their potential career path. To balance this, companies have often offered work experience or internships to individuals who wish to work in the industry. Publishing is, of course, one of those industries.

These internships are gold. If you can have two or three under your belt – preferably one from a top name – then that is a good position to be in when you’re ready to hit that apply button on the job you wanted. They are highly competitive, and about as lucrative as the job one hopes to get afterwards. But there is, for the most part, one very big difference between the job and the internship:

You don’t get paid at an internship.

~

I had the opportunity to take part in an internship this summer. I am incredibly grateful and loved it from start to end. It gave me great insight into the industry, the job role, and I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything in the world.

But let’s make something very clear.

It cost me £1600 to do it.

Yeah, cost me. I paid that to be there.

And that is a lot of money.

The money went on transport and food for the eight weeks I was there. I don’t live in London, and so had to find a way to get there and survive there. Sure, I was given money towards my expenses, but that figure you see up there is the amount I had to spend after I had received that reimbursement. Hell yes, that’s a lot of money.

I’ve already commented on the need for publishing to move out of London, and this is just another reason. I won’t dwell on it too much, but if publishers did take the opportunity to look outside of London it’s entirely possible these costs for potential future employees would decrease and the diversity required for the industry would be far more likely to be available.

But let’s turn back to the matter at hand.

As I said, I don’t regret my time at my internship at all. I loved it. And I would spend that money again to do it again if I had to. But that’s kind of the problem – I had to. Speaking to others about this opportunity, many of them were shocked that I had to spend so much money without any kind of guarantee at the end of it. The words ‘slave labour’ came up a lot.

I would never equate unpaid internships to slave labour. I chose to be there and do the work and I’m not aware slaves have their masters telling them that if it’s too much and they need to go home then they should. But outside of that comparison the hard truth is there. Interns do a lot of work, the same work as an employee within the business, so shouldn’t they be paid for it? The fact of the matter is, they are, for the time they are in that company, an employee.

I was given a pass to the building and access to an email address and I worked the same hours as everyone else. I worked alongside editors and managers on projects, delivered my reports promptly and filed away paperwork. I did my job for eight weeks. It was my job.

~

There are, of course, several reasons why interns remain unpaid. The first is that the industry needs to save money. This is true across many sectors. As things get tighter year-on-year and the press of other markets and other demands make publishing look for new ways to forge a profit, the need to save money in as many areas as possible is strong. One could speculate what would happen if publishing houses decided to make internships government-subsidised apprenticeships instead.

But perhaps that’s a little outlandish…?

Secondly, there is the argument that interns are just not good enough. Young and inexperienced, straight out of university or college, interns don’t carry the same integrity and standards of those who are employees and have been for some time, right? Or perhaps they have applied for this internship to see if they like it, only to discover after two days that they don’t. It wouldn’t be cost effective to employ people that aren’t sticking around, right?

Wrong. Completely wrong on both counts.

The whole reason interns have applied for these positions is to learn how to do the job. You have to start somewhere. When it comes to the creative industries, that somewhere is usually an internship. If the industry as a whole were to brush off every intern that came through its door as not being good enough, they’d never hire new people.

And if the company understands they are accepting interns on a short-term basis, then surely measures can be put in place within the structure for this. After all, employees leave too… It may even be that the incentive of actually being paid for the work might make them stick around, might make them work that little bit harder, if that’s what you’re worried about.

~

There have been calls over recent months and years to scrap unpaid internships. The feeling that people are doing work for no money no longer sits right in our society. And yet the expectation – particularly within the creative industries – that it’s necessary is still there. It says a lot about the attitude towards creative careers that many believe we should do something for nothing. That we allow this attitude to continue and be perpetuated only means that the industry continues to devalue itself in the societal and cultural structure we are in. The argument for book prices and eBooks and self-publishing and the value to be found there is as much reflected in the paying of its workers.

If we’re not going to put the money into it – if we do not believe it has value – then why should anyone else?

 

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