Unpaid internships are still not OK

I love my job, my paid, professional London job with its salary and other such luxuries that allow me to eat, pay my rent and keep the cat happy. But this doesn’t stop me keeping a casual eye on what else is out there, what kind of jobs are coming up in my area of work and what my opportunities might be in the future.

What shocks me most about idly flipping through the charity job listings is how many which match my experience and interests are unpaid. These are full-time, long-term positions, often requiring some level of previous digital experience and invariably for the most wealthy and high profile third sector organisations.

This is not okay, and it’s not okay for three reasons:

1. To expect somebody to work for nothing over any extended period of time is exploitative. If they are to turn up regularly at a given place and time in order to complete tasks assigned to them then they are working, and if they are working then they should be paid, like everybody alongside them.

2. To advertise what is essentially a professional role and yet describe it as a voluntary internship undermines those of us who occupy those positions as part of our careers. When an organisation hands all or part of its digital communications over to somebody who isn’t valued enough to be paid, it sends a message that the role isn’t worth paying for and makes it difficult for smaller organisations to justify the creation of permanent posts themselves.

3. Increasing an organisation’s capacity through the ongoing recruitment of interns sets an impossible standard for how much one department can achieve. In the charity sector, organisations are in constant competition for the best campaigns, the biggest impact, the best management of social media, but if reaching these goals is artificially inflated by an unpaid workforce then it leaves others with no choice but to play by the same rules.

What about the interns themselves?

Arguments against paying interns are often centred around a lack of experience. This perpetuates the frustrating cycle which many young people in particular find themselves in – they need a job in order to gain experience, but are not able to find a job because they don’t have experience. Without addressing this problem, the existence of exploitative internships will continue as young people are forced to work for nothing in order to stand a chance of entering the paid job market.

Another difficulty for many interns is that working for free quickly becomes an exclusive opportunity, only available to people whose family and friends are able to financially support them through it. This creates a socially unacceptable divide in which those with a wealthy family friend in Islington can live and eat for free, in central London, for the duration of their placement, whereas those without these connections can’t afford the time away from their paid student jobs in order to do what is too often necessary to get onto the career ladder.

What are the exceptions?

There are many reasons why people decide to volunteer within a third sector organisation and not all of these amount to the willing exploitation of desperate graduates.

For some, taking a short-term voluntary role is a way of building confidence after a period of being out of work, perhaps due to illness, family commitments or a change in lifestyle. Volunteering can also be a way of trying out a new sector or transitioning from student to working life. These are all very different circumstances and what sets these placements apart from exploitative internships is their short-term and entirely flexible nature.

Departments hiring volunteers are, of course, benefiting from the extra capacity that another set of hands brings to a communications team. With that, I think, comes a responsibility to provide as much flexibility, training, nurturing and investment as that person needs in order to get where they want to go.

For this to work effectively, charities need to believe in the value of investing in somebody who can not only help them in the short-term, but also go on to contribute to the wider digital landscape once they’re on that more established path.

Similarly, there needs to be a growing belief that one or two month voluntary placements are enough to qualify for a permanent, paid position at the nearest level. As a sector, it’s important we move away from demanding that people have six months to a year’s unpaid experience, because it’s both unfair and unrealistic. As we all know, everybody has to start somewhere, so I say let’s stop worrying about endless experience and give people that chance to get into digital.

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