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BY Leo Hynett


Unpaid Internships – The Elephant In The Boardroom

In many industries, the only way in is an internship. Unpaid work is impossible for many people, presenting a barrier to changing careers.

OCTOBER 15  2021


A lot of supposedly entry-level positions require years of experience, leaving graduates or those wanting to change careers stuck in a continuous feedback loop. For many, working for free is the only way to break out of that ‘need experience to get experience’ cycle.

Unpaid internships are common in many industries – including journalism and publishing – but they are not accessible to everyone for a variety of reasons, meaning that these industries remain closed to those who are simply not able to work for free. This barrier to entry is one many struggle to get past, but can the unpaid internship be made to work?

We would like to emphasise that we do offer flexible unpaid opportunities here at Distilled Post. We are not writing from a place of superiority, but from a place of examining a problem we are aware is entrenched within the industry we work in.


Barriers to entry

The most obvious issue here is money. In order to be able to take on an unpaid internship, people must either also have another source of income or have no financial obligations. If someone is already working a full-time job, they are unlikely to have the time or energy to dedicate to another role. This can result in people being stuck in jobs they don’t enjoy and locked out of an industry they would truly love to work in.

Some unpaid internships need a large amount of time dedicated to them – some even request the hours of a full-time job – meaning that it is practically impossible to work whilst completing them. Unpaid internships are therefore widely considered as a barrier to social mobility, only opening doors to those from backgrounds that can afford them.

Location may be becoming less of an issue in light of the pandemic, but many internships still require in-person participation due to the persistent belief that this is the best way to gain the required industry experience. Remote internships open up opportunities to far more people, and this will hopefully begin to bring change to industries – especially those that have historically been very London-centric.

Expecting people to work for free is incredibly difficult anywhere, but this is especially the case in London where the cost of living is that much higher. This means many people are unable to access this all-important step towards a new career, often cementing these roles as something only accessible by those who are affluent and, more likely than not, white.


The importance of representation

In their 2020 Diversity Survey, The Publishers Association found that ‘75% of respondents live in South East England (38%) or London (37%)’; the London centred nature of publishing immediately puts up barriers for those who cannot afford to live in the city or are unable to commute in for financial or physical reasons.

BAME representation in the publishing industry workforce has ‘stalled’ at 13% since 2017, which is likely linked to the financial barriers to entering the industry. On top of the financial barriers, ‘socioeconomic background and education continue to represent major barriers to inclusion.’ In fact, ‘those with private schooling and Russell Group degrees continue to dominate the [publishing] workforce.’

You may read this and wonder what the state of the publishing workforce has to do with you. The answer is: far more than you’d think. Stories shape us, and that includes the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and those around us. We internalise the things we read; if the only representation we see is negative then we will carry these attitudes into our lives. Without diverse teams publishing diverse stories, we end up perceiving ourselves and others through a very white, male, heterosexual and able-bodied lens. And the first step towards diversifying those teams is making it possible for everyone to access the industry.

Unfortunately, with completing an unpaid internship being a prerequisite for many jobs in publishing, a lot of people remain unable to get into the industry. Some publishing houses are moving away from unpaid internships, offering compensation to all their interns. This is a costly practice, but it pays dividends when you are able to bring bright new talent into your workforce. Frustratingly, change is slow, and having to pay interns may mean that some places stop taking them on altogether due to the costs.


Can unpaid internships work?

Paid internships are of course a better alternative, but they may not always be possible for companies and it would limit the number of interns they could take on. With unpaid internships, the only limit is the amount of time in the calendars of those managing them. Equally, it is important that companies do not think of interns as a free pair of hands – interns should get as much (or arguably more) out of the internship than the employer. 

For unpaid internships to work, they need to be flexible and work around the intern’s other commitments. Family, studies, and paid work will take priority – and rightfully so. Employers must be mindful of this and ensure they give their interns the flexibility required for it to work for both parties.

Companies should provide reference letters for interns and keep a log of the work completed. In all industries – especially media, publishing and journalism – interns should be credited for their work and be able to use it for their portfolios and CVs in future. The whole point of internships is to build up experience and break out of the ‘need experience to get experience’ cycle, so it is vital that employers do what they can to support their interns.

The remote work practices developed during the pandemic have made internships more accessible as people no longer need to attend offices and spend their own money on commuting or purchasing office wear. Additionally, it provides far more flexibility; people can now fit the internship around their existing commitments, making them accessible to those who have work or kids. Not having to navigate inaccessible office buildings also means these opportunities have opened up to people with disabilities.

Unpaid internships provide valuable experience, and it’s important that they are made accessible to everyone who wants to get into a new sector. If people are not being financially compensated for their time and effort, employers must ensure they are making it worthwhile for the people they take on.

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