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Internships. A great idea gone bad.

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Had it not been for an internship, I wouldn't be a copywriter. Once I'd completed my training, my tutor arranged for a series of placements at various agencies. It was called 'work experience' then, and each placement lasted a few days. It was a two-pronged approach: I gained valuable experience, working on real briefs with real creatives, and the agency had a chance to see if I was any good. If they liked me, they had the opportunity to hire me. And, at my fourth attempt, that's exactly what happened. I was offered a rolling freelance contract, writing radio scripts.

So, I would be the last person to criticise the notion of internships. However, depressingly, the process appears to have gone horribly wrong.

Last weekend's Guardian magazine ran a feature wherein modern interns described their experiences. This was one:

"For the first two months I made tea, I brought people their dry-cleaning, I bought lunch for the office from a nearby sandwich place,  and sometimes I emptied the bins. From there, I graduated to admin tasks such as stuffing envelopes, sticking stamps on and posting them, giving out mail, making more tea. In my mind, it was all worth it for the chance of a job.
Five and a half months into the internship, I arrived at the office and found a few smartly dressed people in the foyer, about my age ... I brought them some water and asked what they were here for ... that's when I found out they were here to interview – for my internship."

A few alarming details stand out in this short account - but perhaps the most staggering is the time-scale. 'Five and a half months'!
Not so long ago, this would have been laughable. No prospective employee would be expected to work for nothing for half a year, and very few employers would consider the arrangement acceptable. What's more, an intern would be specifically involved in the work for which they had trained - and I'm pretty sure the poor soul quoted above was not pursuing a career in hot beverages and dry-cleaning.
The divisive nature of these arrangements almost goes without saying. Only those able to rely on parents for financial support can possibly entertain the idea, therefore the door is firmly shut on anyone from a less affluent background.

It would be re-assuring to think this story is a one-off aberration, but it isn't. Across the UK, dozens (probably hundreds) of smart, keen young adults are being hoodwinked into 'internships' which are nothing of the sort, merely dogsbody wage-free jobs - and sadly, the creative industries are particularly guilty. 

Careers in the creative world are now seen as the last word in cool. If you can't be a pop star or a model, then a gig in advertising, design or broadcasting is a handy alternative. Admittedly, it's an arena which can be stimulating, exciting and jolly good fun. But it can also be frustrating, unpredictable and very hard work. Nevertheless, creative careers are now trophy careers - and the recently qualified will do almost anything to get a break. To the shame of far too many agencies and firms, this desire is now being thoroughly exploited in order to grab some free labour.

This is a cynicism that would make a government spin doctor blush. Right now, to force drudgery on ambitious young people, may seem a wonderful ruse. It may even be tacitly encouraged by coalition employment policy, but it's wrong and the industry will eventually pay in lost reputation. For goodness sake, this business is already suspected of flakiness, insincerity and frivolousness, do we really need to add conniving and uncaring to the list?

In fact, these shabby practices may soon be brought to a juddering halt, as those charged with enforcing the minimum wage have announced a clampdown on unfair internships. However, in the meantime, instead of leaping on a particularly unedifying bandwagon, laden with exhausted and unrewarded youths, why don't we set a standard for others to follow? Indeed, why doesn't the creative industry draw up an internship code of conduct, and stick to it? That way, those seeking to gain experience in creative disciplines (ultimately the future of our industry), could spend a modest period learning a craft  in a real work setting, without fear of spending up to a year as a lackey and a mug. At the same time, the sector could regain some pride and demonstrate its progressive principles to the world.

Believe me, good conduct is good business. So I'm calling for a return to the proper placements of old - informal apprenticeships offering a genuine route to a paid creative job. I believe it's time to stop behaving like the governors of a Victorian workhouse and do the right thing. For everyone's sake.

Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant

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