Until I was 22, I'd never heard of internships: no one at my school (Aylwin Girls' School in Bermondsey) went on them. Most of us left school at sixteen, and the jobs we were aiming for were admin, hairdressing, childcare — or, in some cases, motherhood (and welfare).
The idea of pupils spending summers doing internships to beef up their CVs was alien to me. If you wanted to work at the head office of a high street bank — which was my first job — then you just applied to a recruitment agency. It was when I was offered a (paid) internship in a fashion PR agency, after doing two weeks unpaid work experience during my annual leave from the bank, that I was introduced to this world. Last year, in my pursuit of a career in journalism, I spent time doing an unpaid internship at my local paper.
Hazel Blears said in the House of Commons today that unpaid internships are "exploitative" — and she is probably right in some cases. But if unpaid internships were banned, then opportunities would not exist for people like me. Local newspapers just don't have the money to spend. I regarded my internship as free on-the-job training and I left with a sharpened news sense, a portfolio full of news stories, interviewing skills, industry contacts and a glowing recommendation from the editor for a £3,900 bursary to complete a NCTJ journalism qualification. I was never asked to make tea or get lunch; it was work experience in every sense of the word. It was priceless.
There are paid internships, but they are gold dust. My sister was one of 12 who has been offered a year-long paid internship at ITV — she got this through the JobCentre and was picked out of 3,000 applicants. The dream, for everyone in her situation, is that there may be a job opening at the end of it. But to get the chance to turn up there, and meet prospective employers, is valuable in itself.
Journalism is rife with informal internships that are almost always unpaid. Often, if you are seeking a job in the media, then working for free is a given. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons that the British media lacks people from diverse backgrounds: not everyone can afford to work for free. If you're not on Housing Benefit, you just can't afford to work for £15,000-a-year — which is the going starting rate for graduates in one Fleet St newspaper.
It may be unfair, but I have a feeling that I'll always be up against other people who have contacts and relationships, and who can work for free — and keep doing it until the job comes along. It would be great if everyone had a fair crack of the whip, but this is earth, not heaven. It's a big problem. And not one I can see a solution to.