My Week in Joblessness (6) The Good, the Bad and the Fugly…Internships [GoThinkBig column]

Published 12/07/2013 on GoThinkBig

My Week in Joblessness sticky-2

This week, the Pyjarmy have been discussing that lovely, much-needed, not-at-all frustrating buffer between The Jobless and The Employed: internships. Though the mere mention of the word makes me feel like wrenching my hair into a Bonham-Carter goth-nest and squawking like a parrot, even I know they’re not ALL exploitative.

But some are.

One of the worst things about doing any internship is that you have to pretend you’re happy about it. As if the little girl or boy version of you dreamed of conquering an intern-eat-intern world. There are too many candidates, and internships are the filter. Career purgatory. A nearly-there. A not-job. But as far as your boss’s ego goes, it’s the chance of a lifetime.

Some internships are worth your time, others aren’t worth the air into which your name is never uttered. Some internships teach you the ropes, others make you want to make a noose out of one. So how do you know if the internship you’re doing is a dud?

So, you’re not getting paid

Britons are getting increasingly huffy about unpaid internships. A high-profile magazine editor recently admitted to hiring unpaid interns SPECIFICALLY to cut costs. Which mischievous little HR imp came up with that idea, eh? Little rascals, with their naughty exploitative ways! I do hope the velociraptor scene from Jurassic Park doesn’t happen in their office.

When it’s ok

Unpaid internships that last one or two weeks, perhaps as part of a qualification, are knocking on the ceiling of fair enough. If you’re learning how a publication runs, your work is being critiqued and you’re getting bylines, it’s better than a kick up the arse (ah, ye olde training methods).

When it’s not

– It lasts longer than a holiday. By offering long-lasting unpaid internships, they’re pricing out the thousands of candidates who don’t have a trust fund, a generous/dead relative, or a tooth fairy with amnesia (“Did I do you already?”). So it’s their own fault if their office is suddenly filled with people saying things like, “My weekend? Oh, don’t. It’s not every day you wake up to find the horse in the swimming pool.”

– When you’re doing their work. Private companies using unpaid interns IS ILLEGAL – although it still seems to be on the “copying your mate’s CDs” side of illegality. Under the law, there’s no such thing as an intern. There are only PAID workers, and unpaid volunteers – who can only be taken on by charities (and as sorry as we might feel for both readers of Nuts magazine, it’s not a charity. So, no “volunteers” for them, however enthusiastic they may be).

An unpaid intern is someone who shadows and learns. If the work they do would have to be done by someone else if they weren’t there – pay up, employers.

So, you’re overqualified

Joblessness is rough, and after a few months of shout-singing “Life is a Highway” through frustrated tears at an empty inbox, internships start to look like a beam of light breaking through stormy clouds, with rosy-cheeked angels singing “Aaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!”

Until you start a BAD one.

At a BAD placement, all your training and experience seems to mean astonishingly little. You feel patronised. You’re ignored by potential interviewees when they see “intern” on your email address. You don’t get invited to the parties and events – but that doesn’t stop the staffers talking about how amaaaaaaazing it was. You look back on all your agonising hours of training, the soul-crushing constructive abuse, only to be told to untangle paperclips. Your login may as well be “wherediditallgowrong123”.

Being underused is dangerous. The constant reminder that you haven’t made it can leave you just as depressed as your lowest jobless moments, where the only highlight of your day was finding biscuit crumbs in the duvet folds…and eating them.

When it’s ok

Being overqualified is great when there’s a job going. But perhaps use the word “qualified” when you put yourself forward. No one wants to be the “About time you short-sighted imbeciles realised what a bloody visionary I am, now let’s talk pension schemes” candidate.

When it’s not

If you’re already good enough to be a staff writer but they’re keeping you on as an intern, the evil is two-fold:

1) Knowing that for you being underused, undervalued and underpaid trumps being evicted, they’re getting talent on the cheap to be more productive than their budget allows.

2) They’re using up a placement on a qualified journalist instead of an eager-to-learn newbie.

So, there’s no job available

Sometimes, it boils down to the mantra of the recession: they’d love to hire you, but there’s no money.

When it’s ok

When everyone involved knows you’re there for a limited time, and you have no false job-hope.

When it’s not

Some places let you think there might be a job coming your way. They keep the company employment freeze hush-hush. They keep you on after your placement ends – why wouldn’t they? Clearly you’re happy to work for half the staffer’s pay. It’s like one of those relationships where someone’s being strung along, thinking the other is about to propose – everyone knows but you…you’re not special to them. They’re using you. They’d replace you in a day.

They’re just not that into you.

So you’re doing a BAD internship? How to deal with it

The industry is too small for you to go all Braveheart on them, standing on the table and screaming “FREEDOM!” or stabbing anyone with a spear. It won’t make them see the error of their ways; you’ll just give them an anecdote in which you’ll look like the bad guy. “Remember the intern with the spear?”, they’ll say, chuckling, patting their stab-wounds, shaking their heads at the idea of any employer putting up with you.

No matter how bad it was, be gracious. Say thank you. Say you learned a lot. Then go home, update your CV and look for a decent job – and some bedspread biscuit crumbsGoThinkBig

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