Op-Ed: Amy Bracken on the value of unpaid internships


With criticisms of unpaid internships mounting and the government’s JobBridge scheme being met with scepticism, freelance television researcher and journalist Amy Bracken explains why working for free can be crucial for your career prospects

The term ‘unpaid internship’ is on everyone’s lips at the moment, and with the summer holidays and graduations just around corner, many students are likely to be investigating summer internships, or perhaps longer-term options. There are many negative opinions being circulated regarding unpaid internships, but from my experience, when you go at it with the right attitude, the benefits for interns can be better than a degree.

I graduated from UCD in 2011, and completed a Masters in Trinity College in September 2012. I’m currently working as a freelance television researcher and journalist. I have done many internships and work experience placements, both paid and unpaid, in this field. It began with a two-week stint at a local newspaper, followed by contributing to the University Observer, of which I became News Editor in my final year. After finishing my finals at UCD, I spent four months on a paid journalism internship with the Irish Farmers Journal. In October 2012, I did some unpaid work experience in London, which has since led to paid work, but I would still consider unpaid work again, because I know what I can achieve from it.

I have witnessed both sides of the internships debate. Paid internships are almost unheard of, and having a monthly pay packet at the Farmers Journal was certainly a nice benefit, but the experience taught me that there are very few recent graduates who are ready to walk into a career upon finishing college. For this reason, employers are often unfairly judged for not paying their interns from the start. That opinion comes with a word of caution: there are certainly employers who exploit their interns and that needs to change. However, I don’t think I would be where I am today without the various placements I have done, both paid and unpaid.

In the debate about paying interns, the question of ‘equal pay for equal work’ crops up often, but in reality, interns rarely if ever do the same work as employees, or at the very least, they are not capable of doing it to the same standard due to lack of experience. When I started interning at the Farmers Journal, it soon became clear that despite my previous journalism experience, I had virtually no idea of how a national weekly commercial newspaper worked, and it was also clear that I simply did not have the same professional experience as the other journalists.

What I received in return was much more than a wage packet. The company risked its reputation by offering me, their intern, the experience of representing it at a variety of events and conferences around the country, affording me the chance to build networking skills, communication skills and, most of all, help me decide whether or not that career path was for me.

Among other things, I got to properly experience working in a 9-5 office environment. In short, considering how little I knew about the profession when I started, and considering what I learned there, it was merely a very kind gesture on the company’s behalf to pay me. If anything, I think I was paid to reflect the length of time I was interning, but in my experience, being unpaid motivates you to work even harder, and encourages you to learn as much as possible. Money, it seems, is a distraction from the true meaning of the word ‘internship’.

However, I am not overlooking the financial problems being faced by graduates. I know only too well. I am currently in debt, but living in England has taught me how lucky we are in Ireland. One of my friends here has debts of around £20,000 from her student days and now she has turned to unpaid interning, so that will continue to rise. Why is she doing it? She knows that she is simply not qualified to do the job she eventually wants to get, so by interning she is learning and build relationships at the same time.
A while ago I was offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do unpaid work experience at Sky News in London. I had applied for that particular placement before and was very disappointed when I got an automated email stating my skills and experience were not up to scratch. Instead of being disheartened, I paid attention to the feedback, got experience as a Runner, and then applied again. My debts mounted while I did it, but what I learned there, and the contacts I made (through which I have gotten some paid work), are immeasurable.

Another of many criticisms of internships that we are hearing is that only those with some skills and experience are hired, but as I learned with the above mentioned placement, some people simply have high expectations and are not willing to start at the bottom. I think an internship should be treated like a career ladder: you need to climb the ladder as an intern before climbing it as a professional. Some definitely require prior skills and experience, just like a job does. My advice? Swallow your pride and start at the bottom, because, as I’ve discovered, a two-week stint at a local newspaper was the catalyst for many things to come. I would never have gotten my internship in the Farmers Journal without it, let alone the internships I have done since.

Many graduates claim that by offering unpaid work experience placements, companies are able to avail of free labour. The Government’s JobBridge scheme has been the source of much criticism since its initiation, with some companies advertising positions such as baristas, waitresses and barmaids as internships. While certainly positions such as these are often a means for an employer to get free labour in a position where two days of training is sufficient, the success stories from the scheme, especially for graduate interns, speak volumes. You just need to research it properly, and common sense will tell you when it’s a reputable company and when it’s merely free labour.

I’m not saying that JobBridge is perfect because it certainly isn’t, but I cannot understand some of criticisms of it that we’re hearing. The employer is under no obligation to take you on permanently at the end of the internship, but that has proven to be a major bone of contention for JobBridge graduates. It’s clear that paid work was the motivating factor for them deciding to intern, and it shouldn’t be. I think these people need to take a step back and re-assess what they learned on their internship, and after all, if you are being exploited then you shouldn’t stay in your position. The essence of interning is to lay the foundations for your career, and to build on the skills that you have already, and you need to be realistic and accept that the employer doesn’t owe you anything.

It may seem that internships are majorly beneficial to the employer but nine times out of ten they are not. Employers need to train an unskilled person, supervise them closely, and accept the fact that the duties being performed by the intern will take twice as long to complete than they would if a skilled person was doing them. Admittedly, more allowance for expenses such as travel to and from work and lunch would be welcomed, but probably 90% of the gain goes to the intern and not the employer.

I am writing this from London, where I live and work now, thanks to the contacts I made while doing several stints of unpaid work experience. I truly believe that interning, whether paid or unpaid, has taught me more about my chosen career area than my BA and my MPhil degrees put together did. Obviously, you shouldn’t expect your two weeks in your local newspaper, or the equivalent in whatever industry you decide to intern in, to suddenly make you the right candidate for the graduate position you want. As I said before, interning should be seen positively as a step up the ladder. But as you can probably guess, my number one tip is not to let the financial aspect put you off the idea. There is definitely more of an incentive to work hard when unpaid, which you will be thankful for in years to come.

Amy Bracken completed her BA in UCD, graduating in 2011. She also holds an M.Phil from Trinity College Dublin, from which she graduated in 2012. She is currently working as a freelance television researcher and journalist in London.