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14 October 2011

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

By Steven Baxter

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.

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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.

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