Why work experience sucks

There are some things in life that are bound to make you feel pretty low. These include being dumped, being told you’ve put on weight and hearing that your beloved childhood cat Mittens has died.

Though I am lucky to have experienced only one of these (RIP Mittens), I have spent the last few years discovering something else that makes me feel like shit: work experience.

Since the age of 16 it has been drummed into me by school teachers, uni lecturers and career advisers that the most important aspect of job applications is experience. Screw the A*s and firsts I spent hours cramming for, the job market is so tough for graduates, that to get a job you need enough weeks of work experience to form a fair few bullet points on your CV.

Work experience occasionally comes in the form of paid internships, but for many industries, (fashion, journalism, PR etc) most opportunities to develop your skill-set requires working for free. I will rant about this later, but only after first launching an attack at other aspects of the work experience world that really grind my gears.

Too often I have arrived at the office, fresh faced (usually out of breath after inevitably getting lost), only to find that there is no desk set up, no computer log-in sorted or no intern email address arranged yet. To put it bluntly, feeling like such a spare part is fucking awkward.

Though not meant as a personal attack upon any of the companies I have completed work experience with or interned at, my experience of working for free has been one of often feeling in the way, too nervous to speak up, afraid of bothering employees that have ‘real’ work to do.

For someone who is relatively confident and competent, this is a horrible feeling. And for someone who likes socialising, the environment whereby you know no-one and everyone knows everyone is excruciating.

This is not an issue of being reluctant to start from the bottom, I am more than willing to carry out menial tasks. The issue is of employees treating those on work experience like dirt: barely bothering to talk to them and rarely rewarding their work with so much as a lunch out.

The stereotype of interns twiddling their thumbs and scrolling aimlessly through Facebook exists for a reason. Sometimes, even if you ask, there is nothing you can help with.

Whereas, if you actually are working on something of value, then chances are, as an unpaid worker, you won’t be given the credit for it.

Work experience accomplishments: a lose-lose situation.

Now, onto the more serious and arguably important issue of pay. Since 2010, I have worked unpaid at 11 different organisations, only two of which bothered to reimburse travel expenses. Out of these, ‘work experience’ has seen me working at eight companies for a combined period of about a month and a half. I have also worked as an unpaid intern at three other companies (a media production one, a political violence think-tank and a refugee charity) for several more months. This means that, in total, I have worked for over four months unpaid in my life.

Judging by other friends’ experiences, this is the norm. One friend of mine worked at a swanky PR company in Hammersmith for three months unpaid, whilst another must have worked for free at more London-based magazines than I have fingers to count on.

If you’re under the illusion that the problem of work experience and unpaid internships isn’t class-based then you’re wrong.

It was recently revealed that working as an unpaid intern in London for six months costs a minimum of £5,556. This piece, by The Tab, used research from The Sutton Trust to analyse rent, transport and food costs. Their findings were alarming, as even in Manchester, thought of as much cheaper than London, these costs would come to £4,728.

I am extremely lucky that my teenage years were spent in a financially stable household, in a distance commutable to and from London. This is so important because the necessity of having internships on one’s CV has become increasingly commonplace in recent years. And this is problematic: 63% of cultural and creative, 56% of media-related, and 42% of financial and professional services internships advertised on the Graduate Talent Pool website were unpaid.

With one in three now working in an unpaid internship after leaving uni, I dread to think whether and how those from working class or less well-off backgrounds can cope.

Ultimately though, it does not matter whether someone can or cannot afford the costs of an internship. If you are providing something of worth to a company then you deserve to be paid.

So, work experience sucks. Employers should be responsible for, at the very least, providing interns with the minimum wage. And graduates such as myself should not accept companies’ horrible treatment any longer.

Why have I finally reached this conclusion?

As L’Oreal’s famous slogan puts it, because I’m worth it.

4 thoughts on “Why work experience sucks

  1. Such an honest blog! There was a similar article in the Times last week actually commenting on that same bit of research by the Sutton Trust. I have been lucky enough to have met some great people who have made sure my work placements have kept me busy. But it really does depend on who oversees your placement as to how much responsibility they are willing to give you!

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