Okay, it's time to put interning in perspective

A former spiked intern has a message for his fellow jobbing students: internships are not a form of slave labour.

UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg probably thinks he is doing the less well-off a favour by having a go at the middle-class ‘monopoly’ on internships in competitive industries. But all he is really doing is feeding the woe-is-me attitude of recent graduates and sustaining the narcissistic whining of campaign groups such as Internocracy and Interns Anonymous. This isn’t what graduates need. Rather than excuses, what graduates need is to rise to the challenge.

You’d think, given much of the recent hysteria around internships, that if you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth then it’d be well nigh impossible to become an intern after graduating. Clegg’s recent assertion that internships are ‘almost the exclusive preserve of the sharp-elbowed and the well-connected’ came soon after revelations that the Tories auctioned off city internships at a Conservative Ball.

Even those who do get internships talk of the ‘monstrous exploitation’ that takes place amongst ‘slave labour graduates’. As one intern in the fashion industry puts it: ‘It’s slave labour, but I knew that if I didn’t take the role, it would go to someone else.’ 

Unsurprisingly, given such sentiments, a number of advocacy groups have recently emerged – often set up by young graduates – such as Interns Anonymous, Interns Aware and Internocracy. All of the groups deploy the same rhetoric of exploitation, cruelty and exclusion, and some routinely name and shame the ‘worst offenders’.

Internocracy, one of the most vocal intern campaign groups, is primarily lobbying for two things: firstly, that an intern’s background should be disregarded, and secondly that the internships must be good quality and are not just ‘executive tea duty’. The group asserts that it is technically ‘illegal’ not to pay interns. Becky Heath, CEO of Internocracy, says: ‘When such low numbers of young people and employers actually understand the rights interns have in the workplace, it’s no wonder that exploitation is rife in popular sectors.’

The Interns Anonymous website, meanwhile, exhibits a short documentary entitled Young, Talented and Working for Free. Featuring short interviews with former interns, the main - perhaps only - point it makes is that it is financially impossible to have an internship unless you are from a wealthy background.

There is a problem with this argument, however. It isn’t true. Without trying to sound holier-than-thou, I moved to London to study knowing full well that if I was to pursue a career as a journalist I would need to get internships and work experience. I don’t expect to leave university and get it all on a plate. And I don’t, as some newspapers are calling it, need a ‘Clegg up’ to help me realise my ambitions.

Furthermore, interns are not the modern-day proletariat, or the secret exploited masses that drive the British economy forward. Rather, internships are a way of gaining experience, contacts and a taste of working in that industry. As an intern, expecting anything apart from help and direction - in my case with my writing - is incredibly arrogant.

Companies invest considerable time and resources in training interns and, more often than not, don’t just draft in interns to save on staff costs. In continually calling for more privileges, groups like Interns Anonymous seem to struggle to get to grips with the idea that interns are interns, despite the fact that there’s currently an extremely competitive job market.

Let’s say that companies are forced to pay interns. If that happens, then these schemes simply cease to be internships; they will become something more akin to job creation or youth training schemes. Such paid positions, where they exist, will probably be looked upon as an onerous duty by employers and an opportunity to make money by young people. The things that are specific to interning – young people showing initiative and employers selecting and remembering those who make an impact – will be gone.

I have really been struck by interns’ sense of self-importance and complete lack of self-awareness. For example, one intern on the Interns Anonymous documentary states: ‘I don’t get any support from my parents; I’ve basically been hosting pub quizzes five nights a week. I go to my internship then I go to the pub, it’s been a real struggle.’

But is struggling to be successful such a bad thing? As spiked editor Brendan O’Neill has written recently, ‘working-class youth will fare far better fighting tooth and nail for opportunities in an unequal society than they would under the patronising poor-people promotion scheme drawn up by Clegg and his mates over caffè macchiatos’.

The reason for the woe-is-me attitude held by interns often stems from a sense of academic superiority that comes from studying for a degree. Little wonder that many interns tend to be of the opinion that they are genuine members of staff and that the survival of the company depends almost solely upon them.

This sense of superiority is unfounded. Many students wrongly see getting a degree as being a stepping stone into the workplace. This treats universities as little more than vocational training courses, in which people make an investment of time and money and become automatically irresistible in the job market. This instrumentalisation of higher education means that students mistakenly see their time at universities not as an opportunity to obtain knowledge for its own sake, whether in maths or philosophy, but rather to boost their employability.

When graduates realise that three years and a heap of monstrous debt has actually left them in a worse position than they might otherwise have been in, they seem to lapse into self-pity mode and demand that the adult world helps them out. Indeed at a recent Westminster Education Forum, a representative from Internocracy argued that it was unfair that many internship placements were concentrated in London and the South East. Her argument literally seems to be that businesses – and indeed the world – should revolve around people like her.

Young graduates need to stop whinging that they are ‘victims of the system’. They are nothing of the sort. Interns and groups like Internocracy and Interns Anonymous need to get over themselves, stop shying away from a bit of hard work and realise how much they have to learn from employers. They might then realise the true value of internships.

James Howell is a second-year student at Goldsmiths, University of London and a former spiked intern.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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