I was at a thing yesterday, and I asked a question I probably shouldn’t have (time, place, can of worms stuff) – but… You know how you have those moments where the whatever bit of your brain it is that is most distinctly full of your ~feelings~ on a topic suddenly hooks itself up to your vocal chords,overriding all your rational, ‘there will be another time where this question can be asked if this is going to be a happening thing,’ awareness? I had one of those. A heart pounding rush of blood to the head speak based on initial response moment.
So, it turns out that, if you want to see me winding up into irritation, frustration, baffled anger and the concurrent hand-waving ‘ohmigosh’ peppered conversation, you should probably talk about internships. Specifically you should suggest that they are a good career-opening opportunity. Because I will, almost inevitably, ask very blunt questions about whether or not they pay.
I can even feel the tension in my shoulders and my neck as I type this. My body is muttering on repeat: This. Is. Important. And Complicated. I. Must. Write. This. Right.
I wasn’t with bad or even thoughtless people – very much the opposite. It’s not necessarily that internships are a bad idea. It’s just that they’re an idea that needs to be thought through before you launch into them. It’s also that there are parts of our society that don’t interrogate it before offering up the opportunity – and the assumptions that lead to that mean that a whole swathe of people can’t access that opportunity. And it’s that right now I cannot see this discussion hanging out at the garden gate waiting to happen without feeling an irresistible need to run down the path from the house to shake it hard before I let it into the garden. ’Cos once it’s in the garden, you know, it’s never really going to go away. It’s out there in the bushes, hiding. An easy solution. An, ‘Oh, let’s just let it in the house, we can worry about its influence on the children later,’ moment waiting to happen.
Because – here’s the thing. I am deeply suspicious of internships right now. I am suspicious of the ‘training and development opportunities’ they offer, because some of them don’t. I am suspicious of the amount of financial support they do and don’t provide to the people that take them – ‘lunch and transport’, a ‘stipend towards accommodation’ etc, etc. And, as a consequence of this last, I am suspicious of the way they limit access to the opportunities that they do provide – because some do – especially in certain employment areas (I tend to see it most in arts, media, charity and politics – but that’s because those are the areas I revolve around).
I’m also pretty deeply compromised. The fact that I have my current job stems from the fact that I applied for and took an internship. This became a temp job, became a temp role in my current job, became my current job. It’s also a fact that I was able to do this – to move from Cornwall to London, find a decent flat-share and afford to eat and occasionally do something fun with friends – because I have a pretty privileged background and pretty fabulous parents who were willing to support me financially long after they really had an obligation to.
But I believe that you shouldn’t have to be as fortunate as me to be able to take up the kind of opportunity that this internship offered. You shouldn’t have to know people, you shouldn’t have to live in the area and live at home, or live in a crappy flat and eat hideously unhealthy food while saving your pennies. If this kind of foot-in-the-door is going to be offered, then it should be something that anyone anywhere can take up if they apply and get offered it.
And I believe that not thinking about this when the internship idea starts jiggling the latch on the gate is to start accepting a situation where you do have to be in a privileged position to take up an opportunity. Where the areas and organisations who offer internships are limiting themselves to a pretty specific pool of candidates – and doing themselves a disservice in the meantime.
There are fuzzy lines and balances, sure – there always are. Making a short term investment in work experience is worthwhile, and maybe something you should take a punt on. Sleeping on friends floors and sofas for two weeks to a month may well be do-able. Putting in your time, and your money if you can find a part time job or someone to make you a loan, in an internship that provides serious training and some qualifications or accreditation is something you might consider an investment. But in the abstract, the general, the initial approach to an internship – if you’ve begun to show an aptitude for and a passion about an area, you should not have to rely on your parents/friends/family to take what is, nowadays, an entry-level job.
At it’s best, an internship should be like an apprenticeship. You get to learn and grow new skills in a supervised environment, until you’re ready to take on a job on your own. And you would pay an apprentice. If you think about it, doing a doctorate (which I did) is an apprenticeship for an research or academic career, and there are (limited) funding opportunities for these apprenticeships. You get a stipend. You don’t get your National Insurance paid, if you want to do that, you have to do it. You don’t get taxed. As a student, you don’t pay council tax, and you’re eligible for discounts on public transport. Society invests in you through financial breaks and an institution, investor, funding body of some kind invests in you in coin, and you can live on a much lower income and build your experience. It’s not a long term thing – it is a stage you go through as you build your life.
Why, why, why can we not develop a financial model for internships that works in this kind of way? It doesn’t have to involve publicly funded research council style grants. It just has to allow organisations to set up a limited number of grants for this kind of opportunity in a way that can be monitored within employment legislation, right? Can you find me an accountant, an expert in employment law, some people to invest and some people to yell really loudly?