When I were a lad we didn’t have ‘internships’. Instead we called it work experience – because that’s what it was. That said, in my experience, I learned more about working cultures than the work itself. For instance, in the course of a week’s placement at the offices of a glossy magazine, I encountered an atmosphere that was frostier than the glacial air conditioning. Not for me, I thought.
Another of my placements was at Conservative Central Office (as it was still known in those days). I was briefly interviewed by a desk officer whose name and face I don’t fully recall, but who I do remember thinking was the poshest person I’d ever met. He literally could have been David Cameron.
In any case, the atmosphere was far from frosty. Warmly eccentric would be a fair description, therefore I knew I’d fit in.
The Economist has an in-depth feature on the modern internship – which now plays a major role in the jobs market:
“This year young Americans will complete perhaps 1m such placements; Google alone recruited 3,000 interns this summer, promising them the chance to ‘do cool things that matter’. Brussels and Luxembourg are the summer homes of 1,400 stagiaires, or embryonic Eurocrats, doing five-month spells at the European Commission. The ‘Big Four’ audit companies—Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)—will employ more than 30,000 interns this year. Bank of China runs an eight-week programme (‘full of contentment, yet indescribable’, according to an intern quoted on its website)…”
There are some pretty good reasons why internships have become so ubiquitous (not to mention much longer in duration and more ambitious in scope):
“One reason is a far larger graduate labour pool. In 1970 one in ten Americans over 25 had a bachelor’s degree; now a third do…
“Employees can experiment with different careers before choosing one. And for recruiters internships are a way to sift candidates, a harder process as work has become more complex. The rise of automation and outsourcing means graduate jobs now involve fewer routine tasks and more varied responsibilities… that makes it difficult to judge candidates by their CVs.”
The problem though is that “unpaid internships are becoming the norm” – and thus the world of work, which should allow talented individuals to escape their backgrounds, now begins with a yet another obstacle to social mobility.
Some industries are worse than others – for instance, the fashion industry:
“The most enthusiastic employers of unpaid interns are those that generate a lot of menial work, and are glamorous enough to get people to do it for nothing.”
The applies to other ‘creative’ industries.
In the Observer, Nick Cohen complains that the arts and media are “increasingly controlled by nice people from wealthy backgrounds”:
“Dame Judi [Dench]… worries that acting may become an elite occupation for the children of the rich, because no one else will be able to meet the costs and take the risks. Ben Stephenson, the BBC‘s head of drama, said much the same at the Edinburgh festival but did not add that television is a racket, too. You cannot get a job in broadcasting unless you are prepared to work as an intern…
“But then who am I to criticise Stephenson when journalism is as much of a rich kids’ game? Lindsey Macmillan of the Institute of Education found that journalists used to come from families 6% better off than average, whereas now they come from homes that are 42% richer. Indeed, British journalists, the supposed tribunes of the people, now hail from wealthier backgrounds than, er, bankers, an awkward fact that ought to cause embarrassment all round.”
Of course, these industries are also full of high-profile, public figures with impeccably leftwing views. Given their willingness to share these views with the rest of us, perhaps they might also insist on fair play within the very industries where they can bring the greatest influence to bear?