Internships: Opportunity for Exploitation

Posted on December 13, 2011

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Originally published in MouthLondon.

I have several friends who are currently attempting to carve a career in the Arts sector. Speaking to them about their experiences of interning, I have been shocked by their tales. Duties have ranged from cleaning the staff kitchen and picking up a superior’s dry cleaning, to interviewing X Factor contestants and entertaining at a children’s party in a full-body Barney costume. Their pay? Invariably nothing more than travel and lunch expenses.

Sadly, it appears these stories are far from rare. The Guardian recently reported that 92% of Arts internship advertised on its job site were unpaid.

However, things are looking up and the practice of hiring but not paying interns is currently receiving much condemnation in the press. Should Art institutions be re-examining their morals, or is it an understandable outcome that the creative industries offer the most unpaid internships?

The Arts sector is highly competitive and attracts far more young hopefuls than there are jobs to fill. Internships are a credible way of identifying those with real potential, rather than just enthusiasm. Furthermore, fresh-faced graduates often don’t have the experience or specific skills required to get by in the working world. On my degree (History of Art), despite the high number of MacBooks Pros perched on pert laps, computer illiteracy was commonplace. Internships can provide an opportunity to learn such skills, as well as providing a route into the industry.

But why not pay them? The Arts industry is made up of many micro-businesses with fewer than ten employees. It is (almost) understandable, in such economic times, that small companies aren’t capable of getting the funds together to pay their employees. However, leading figures of the industry, such as the Tate galleries, do not pay their interns either. With bigwigs like Tate setting the standards so low, is it any surprise that smaller companies don’t feel it necessary to meet minimum wage requirements either?

Even though Tate internships are voluntary and offer a minimal chance of leading to a paid position, they are incredibly over-subscribed and competitive. It is a nasty fact of the industry that a name like Tate on your CV is probably worth the cost of an internship.

The effect of not paying an intern is to promote inequality in the field. Only those who can afford to work for free, or whose parents live nearby, are at liberty to undertake them. It is embarrassing to see employers advocating their equal opportunity employment policies on descriptions of unpaid internships.

Research has found that 95.8% of members of the Association of Graduate Recruiters now pay their interns, which is a rise of almost 12% since 2008-9. This is good news, however, graduate recruitment agencies are severely angled towards the financial and business sectors. Whether the Arts industry is unaccommodating to such agencies, or the systems behind it are not suited to such recruitment techniques (it’s probably a bit of both), the Arts sector is one of the most impenetrable for graduates.

Regulation is needed to ensure that internships offer opportunities to gain skills, not merely to add a name to a CV. And if equal opportunity is to be achieved, minimum wage must be enforced, especially if they’ll be required to dress up as Barney.

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Posted in: Feature, Musings