You can’t get a job without experience and you can’t get experience without a job, so many students are forced to do unpaid internships. The Newsroom interviewed students who had taken on an internship to see if the fine line between experience and exploitation was crossed.
In competitive industries, like the media, students can be asked to work 12-hour shifts for months and even years at a time, without the promise of a job.
There is no formal regulation of interning programs so the need for graduates to acquire experience and a portfolio of published work, means students tend to decide how much is too much.
Aimie Smith, a UTS student who graduated with a communications degree, began interning at a well-known fashion magazine.
“They would work me to the ground, running around picking up and dropping things off at various shoots, never reimbursing me for the money I spent on petrol,” Ms Smith said.
“Not only that, but I would work some days from 9am until 10pm at night.”
After a year, Ms Smith had had enough and pulled the pin, only to have to start again.
Macleay College Industry Coordinator Stewart Wauchop believes three to five weeks is suitable for an intern but concedes “in entertainment and the arts anything seems to go”.
“It’s really what the internee is able to cope with,” Mr Wauchop said.
While there are no Australian statistics on the volume of unpaid internships, anecdotal evidence suggests some employers actively seek out skilled tertiary students to fill jobs they would otherwise have to pay someone to do.
But Mr Wauchop believed this was not the norm.
“Most employers are reasonable,” he said.
“In most cases they are just waiting for a vacancy to arise before they can make the appointment. Internees are ‘reserves’ waiting on the bench for their chance.”
It is a catch 22 situation, with some employers taking on interns but not using their skills, seemingly with no benefit to the company or the intern.
A Sydney journalism student, who asked to remain anonymous, completed an unsatisfying 46-hour internship at GQ magazine over a period of five weeks.
He said he felt “invisible” and had to ask for work to do.
“It was exciting to be accepted as an intern at GQ magazine,” he said.
“Though the experience didn’t quite live up to the expectation.
“I didn’t really get to see how the magazine was put together, so it seemed like a waste of time. I wasn’t allowed the opportunity to contribute at all really… It’s like I wasn’t really there in terms of the amount of responsibility I was given.” He said.
Macleay College journalism student, Elisabette Eze, interned with Fairfax Regional Media and had the opposite experience.
“They sent me out on interviews by myself to talk to local politicians,” she said.
“I had no guidelines as to what they expected me to ask. I also had to write up all the stories. The plus-side was they were great with feedback.
“I would be happy to intern part-time but, with the level of work expected, I would draw the limit at six months, no matter how valuable the experience may be.”
Another Macleay student, Rachel Birchansky, has been happily interning with Channel 9 since July 2012. She believes it will lead to something permanent.
“I go once a week, unpaid, which will hopefully lead to a job at the end of this year or early next year,” she said.
“The work environment is great, everyone is lovely and generous and more than willing to help you.”
But even in such a friendly environment, working for free can only go on for so long.
“After maybe eight months to a year of interning, it’s too much,” Ms Birchansky said.
Companies contact higher education institutions and also turn to websites such as seek.com in search of suitable and “qualified” interns.
One recent example said best-suited applicants were “bright university students willing to contribute creatively and perform quality unpaid work to build up their experience base”. The advertisement said: “For this role you need to be creative, resourceful, self-managing and have excellent writing skills.” Applicants also needed to have previous work experience and a portfolio to show. The length of the internship is part-time, 2 days a week for a 60-day working period.
Another advertisement is for 12 weeks, part-time. Also unpaid. None have promises of a job at the end, merely a reference and “invaluable” experience gained. – Sarah Jones