Wanted: Experienced interns. And I’m not joking

Journalism is now like working for the St John Ambulance, but without the chance to put a sling on s

Jobhunting isn't fun. There are many un-fun things about it, from the circulatory rejection email to the bottomless pit into which all applications seem to fall, never to be mentioned again. But perhaps the worst feeling of all is the one I've had a couple of times this week: finding a really decent job advertised that looks perfect for me, then discovering that the salary is £0.00 per annum.

Nowadays, in the media and other industries, you don't have to incentivise potential workers with old-fashioned money; any advert will bring a hundred eager candidates stretching right around the building. Bosses can pick and choose -- and they can pay nothing. Some so-called "internships" demand that candidates have extensive experience and skills and will be required to complete a challenging series of tasks to help make money for the company -- just not for themselves.

It sums up the state of the industry. On the one hand, a few experienced workers cling to permanent positions as if their lives depend on it; which quite often, they do, if they've got bills to pay and families to support. On the other, there's a huge churn of casual employees who have no working rights and who are therefore ripe for exploitation. Step out of line, and your boss could advertise for your position and get flooded with applications overnight, some of which would come from people who'd work for nothing. What choice have you got? It's this culture of fear that brings about compliance from workers who would stretch their ethical boundaries to keep their positions. It's a lose-lose situation for everyone.

It's easy to blame the thousands of graduates from media and journalism courses up and down the country and say it's somehow their fault for wanting to do what they want to do; but I can't, because I was, and am, one of them. I don't know if there really was a golden age when there were vast fortunes to be made and people had jobs for life; there probably wasn't, and those of us struggling to find work now probably knew that pretty well when we signed up. That said, there just aren't the jobs anymore as there once were, and, if there are jobs, you'll have to sweat to get them. True, some people do bafflingly walk into newspapers or magazines without any discernible talent and go on to make a fortune out of it, but I don't begrudge them their bit of luck either: they've played the fruit machine and won. Deep down we'd all fancy a bit of that luck, and I'm no different.

I've got nothing against work experience or genuine internships either; it's how a lot of us (me included) managed to get a breakthrough in the workplace, and it's vital for gaining an insight into a career path. But we're not talking about work experience; we're talking about working up to the standard of a paid worker, having the same tasks as a paid worker, but not being paid; doing a hobby in a workplace. Journalism is now like working for the St John Ambulance, but without the chance to put a sling on someone. The industry is essentially saying: "Look, you know you're desperate, we know you're desperate, so what's it going to be?"

Well, we all know what it's going to be. Already, the type of people who can make it in the industry has changed, and it will change even more. People from poorer backgrounds just aren't going to be able to chuck six months or a year of their lives away for nothing; those from wealthier backgrounds are. I don't think journalism was ever an especially diverse profession, but at least there were chances. Now, what chance do people have, when rents are rising, prices are flying and wages are non-existent?

There are many dispiriting things about being unemployable in this coalition world of dwindling opportunities and guttering hope. It's probably worse for the young people who feel there's no future, the masses of men and women with great qualifications, great skills and absolutely zero chance of getting anywhere because of when they happen to have arrived in the jobs market. I don't blame some of them for working for nothing in the hope it will get them somewhere. But I am not so sure it will get any of us anywhere.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird: “Another week would have won us more seats”

The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on the shadow cabinet – and campaigning with Gordon Brown in his old constituency.

On the night of 8 June 2017, Lesley Laird, a councillor from Fife and the Labour candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, received a series of texts from another activist about the count. Then he told her: “You’d better get here quick.”

It was wise advice. Not only did Laird oust the Scottish National Party incumbent, but six days later she was in the shadow cabinet, as shadow Scottish secretary. 

“It is not just about what I’d like to do,” Laird says of her newfound clout when I meet her in Portcullis House, Westminster. “We have got a team of great people down here and it is really important we make use of all the talent.

“Clearly my role will be facing David Mundell across the dispatch box but it is also to be an alternative voice for Scotland.”

At the start of the general election campaign, the chatter was whether Ian Murray, Labour’s sole surviving MP from 2015, would keep his seat. In the end, though, Labour shocked its own activists by winning seven seats in Scotland (Murray kept his seat but did not return to the shadow cabinet, which he quit in June 2016.)

A self-described optimist, Laird is calm, and speaks with a slight smile.

She was born in Greenock, a town on the west coast, in November 1958. Her father was a full-time trade union official, and her childhood was infused with political activity.

“I used to go to May Day parades,” she remembers. “I graduated to leafleting and door knocking, and helping out in the local Labour party office.”

At around the age of seven, she went on a trip to London, and was photographed outside No 10 Downing Street “in the days when you could get your picture outside the front door”.

Then life took over. Laird married and moved away. Her husband was made redundant. She found work in the personnel departments of start-ups that were springing up in Scotland during the 1980s, collectively termed “Silicon Glen”. The work was unstable, with frequent redundancies and new jobs opening, as one business went bust and another one began. 

Laird herself was made redundant three times. With her union background, she realised workers were getting a bad deal, and on one occasion led a campaign for a cash settlement. “We basically played hardball,” she says.

Today, she believes a jobs market which includes zero-hours contracts is “fundamentally flawed”. She bemoans the disappearance of the manufacturing sector: “My son is 21 and I can see how limited it is for young people.”

After semiconductors, Laird’s next industry was financial services, where she rose to become the senior manager for talent for RBS. It was then that Labour came knocking again. “I got fed up moaning about politics and I decided to do something about it,” she says.

She applied for Labour’s national talent programme, and in 2012 stood and won a seat on Fife Council. By 2014, she was deputy leader. In 2016, she made a bid to be an MSP – in a leaked email at the time she urged Labour to prioritise “rebuilding our credibility”. 

This time round, because of the local elections, Laird had already been campaigning since January – and her selection as a candidate meant an extended slog. Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Gordon Brown, who stood down as the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2015.

“If you ever go out with Gordon, the doors open and people take him into their living room,” says Laird. Despite the former prime minister’s dour stereotype, he is a figure of affection in his old constituency. “People are just in awe. They take his picture in the house.”

She believes the mood changed during the campaign: “I do genuinely believe if the election had run another week we would have had more seats."

So what worked for Labour this time? Laird believes former Labour supporters who voted SNP in 2015 have come back “because they felt the policies articulated in the manifesto resonated with Labour’s core values”. What about the Corbyn youth surge? “It comes back to the positivity of the message.”

And what about her own values? Laird’s father died just before Christmas, aged 91, but she believes he would have been proud to see her as a Labour MP. “He and I are probably very similar politically,” she says.

“My dad was also a great pragmatist, although he was definitely on the left. He was a pragmatist first and foremost.” The same could be said of his daughter, the former RBS manager now sitting in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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