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Interns, the ‘X Factor style team’ and how to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy

December 9, 2011

Graduate Fog, a site for job hunting graduates, has a question for the X Factor:

The X Factor – aimed squarely at viewers aged 16 to 24 – has helped secure Simon Cowell an estimated £200 million fortune. So far, its Saturday shows have raked in £75 million in advertising – and slots in this weekend’s final will sell for £8,000 per second. This year’s sponsorship deal – with Talk Talk – is worth £20 million. The judges’ pay cheques total several million. The show is expected to rake in £5 million from phone votes – just from the final. The show’s advertising deal with Marks and Spencer is worth several million more. Yet the X Factor can’t stump up the minimum wage – that’s £6.08 an hour – for their hard-working interns?

The enquiry comes as it was revealed by Liz Jones in the Daily Mail that the show employs 4 unpaid interns.  Jones was shocked by what she found backstage. There was apparently no sign of the contestant’s celebrity mentors. ‘You know, the judges who hug so prodigiously, who flick tears from their lashes with expensive, etiolated fingernails, who weep and grieve and encourage and impart wisdom.’ Instead Jones finds ‘the X Factor style team’!

I start in wardrobe, a freezing warehouse staffed by Laury and her team, supplemented by four unpaid interns. Bear in mind these young people work seven days a week, from 8am until gone 10pm. No wonder the interns, too, are exhausted and in tears.

But at least, as one team member tells me, ‘they are now employable’. Fantastic. Just don’t tell them about the £8,000-per-second the show will earn from advertisers for a slot in next weekend’s final.

In a country where youth unemployment has passed the 1 million mark, what possible justification can there be for TV show that generates vast sums of money not to pay it’s interns a living wage? But that’s exactly what Graduate Fog is asking.

It gets worse. The BBC reported this week that graduates are actually paying for their internships. Of course, if you’ve been paying attention you will know that this has already been covered on Media Studies is Shit back in October (scoop!). The BBC story highlights the plight of Roz Tuplin, who graduated in 2010 with a post-graduate degree in English Literature, which she thought would be good grounding for a job in the media. She figured that she’d need work experience, but after a year of trying to get a placement, she decided to pay employers £65 a day to let her through the door. In total, Roz will pay £260 for a four-day work experience placement with a TV production company in London.

And, of course, this is all happening in the week that a Geology graduate with ambitions to work in the museum sector decided to take legal action against the government for a scheme that forced her into unpaid work in an area unrelated to her ambitions. Cait Reilly was told if she didn’t take up work experience in Poundland she’d have her benefits cut.

If all the above leaves you fuming, take a look at Ross Perlin’s book, Inter Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. Perlin has been an intern himself while a postgraduate in London, although most of the book looks at the situate in the US.

He argues that the pressure on young people to take up internships is great and growing but what an internship actually means is very ill-defined, perhaps conveniently so for employers. Internships seem to exist outside of employment laws – ‘there are seldom any rules of the road, any standards or codes of conduct that are honoured – only vague expectations’.

Some of the tasks performed by interns vary from the trivial to the jaw-dropping. Perlin recalls an intern that ferried the boss’s urine sample to the doctor; carried bags of leaking garbage around in their own car looking for somewhere to dump it; shopping for full-time staff; and the absolute nadar, two students in the Netherlands, aged 14 and 15, were interns as prostitutes in the local red light district. I kid you not!!! Check here.

Perlin argues that the internship is changing the nature of education and work in the US. Entry into the white collar world increasingly depends upon undertaking an internship, many of which have taken on the character of ‘a form of mass exploitation hidden in plain sight’.

It’s a world closed to those who can’t afford to work for nothing. But even for those sufficiently ‘privileged’ to have an internship the returns are not all they’re cracked up to be. Perlin writes:

…focused training and mentoring are vanishingly rare, as interns soon discover; most ultimately learn the ropes on their own if at all, on the sly if necessary. Employers dictate the terms of hiring and employment: don’t expect protection from courts, unions, universities, or anyone else. Just as troubling is the devaluing of young people’s labor. Once you’ve started ‘spinning’ your work, it’s hard to stop. Once you’re told that your work isn’t worth anything, you stop taking pride in it, you stop giving your best. A tacit mutual agreement sets in between supervisor and intern: I’ll write the letter of reference, you make the coffee. Instead of finding dynamic, character-building, entrepreneurial opportunities, despondent interns cycle through uncompensated, impotent roles collecting nebulous lines on their CVs.

Pause now for a second and consider the life prospects of your average kid.  It looks pretty shit these days, doesn’t it? If they go to university they will leave with an extraordinary debt. But that investment won’t be enough to get them paid employment. They will need to work for fuck all to acquire some dubious work experience. They may even have to pay for the privilege. Once sufficiently ’employable’, they will in all likelihood be confronted with a private sector built on vast disparities of pay and opportunity, not to mention temporary contracts, long hours, no trade union protection and few employment rights. Training and staff development will be something that they’ll be expected to do on their own time and pay for themselves. Then they’ll work ’til they die or retire in miserable poverty.

This is a system in meltdown. It certainly isn’t sustainable. You cannot build for the future by neglecting, ruthlessly exploiting and demoralising the next generation.

There was a tremendous chorus of condemnation directed at the youths who participated in the English riots during the summer. So why the silence on the gross abuse of the young by employers now? Where are the Mafia of the Mediocre when kids are getting fucked over by bosses. Jesus, politicians were falling over each other to get infront of the cameras and microphones during the riots, ranting about feral youths and gang culture. But the scandal of unpaid work? _________________ Nothing. Granted, some of the Bullingdon boys have been busy over in Europe, where they resurrected the old bulldog-spirit, stood up to the Krauts and Frogs, and ‘saved the City of London’ (as one of the Tory-vermin put it on BBC 5 Live this morning). Hurrah! Let’s hear it for the Eton Rifles. Alas, there is no sign of that resolve when it comes to looking after the young people of the UK and standing up to unscrupulous employers.

If I was young I’d be angry. If I was a parent (and I am) I’d be fearful for my children’s future. If I was a politician I’d be ashamed, if any of them knew shame…

With warm regards to everyone over at the TV Watercooler.

Now, I’m off to listen to Richard Thompson’s The End of the Rain. Try it yourself for size…

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2011 1:58 pm

    Well said, sir! Wish I’d said it myself!
    Some thoughts on Work Experience versus Exploitation in TV http://wanttoworkintelevision.com/2011/10/tv-work-experience-v-exploitation – and if any of your readers are doing/have done work experience in TV would love them to do the poll on the front page of my site!

  2. December 9, 2011 9:06 pm

    That link to the idea of 14 and 15 yr olds working as interns to prostitutes isn’t working. It has the smell of an ‘urban myth’, though I’m willing to be convinced if there is evidence. In any event, you’ve made quite a strong enough case against the exploitation of young labour without needing to rely on such examples.

    but – and this is me being awkward and cussy almost for the sake of it – you’re a Media Studies lecturer and most of your students will harbour ambitions of working in the media – i.e. high status ( if not necessarily high pay) jobs, with real cultural (and sometimes political) power associated with them. It ain’t like getting a job at the local council.

    By analogy, there have always been more people who aspire to work in the arts that the economic base of that sector can support. I have several friends, in their forties, who see themselves as actors, visual artists or musicians but, in reality, work in completely other roles to sustain themselves.

    So my question is – and its directed as much to myself as to you Rab – if not internships, how should we organise the entry of people into ‘sexy’ professions if there is always likely to be a surplus if potential supply of labour over demand?

  3. Rab permalink*
    December 10, 2011 11:01 am

    Greetings Shu and Charlie,
    I’ve tried to fix the link to the intern prostitutes story. I referred to it because Perlin mentions it in his book (and I’m fascinated by how stuff like this that seems outrageous, sometime in the future, will be common place). I’m sure that this isn’t the first story I’ve read about students being drawn into the sex industry in one form or another.

    But to answer your question: no offence, but you’re showing your age. And in what I say next, so am I (probably).

    I have no idea what most of my students want to do. They don’t really talk about it, not to me anyway. And as far as I know, not to any of my colleagues. Also, my impression is that they seldom take advantage of any of the ‘careers advice’ activities and services available to them. I don’t no whether this is a media studies-thing or a Northern Ireland-thing, but I get the feeling that the average 18 – 21 year old don’t understand ‘the game’, as they say on The Wire.

    But this idea of ‘sexy’ jobs is interesting because part of the narrative around the so-called creative industries is their association with freedom, creativity, celebrity etc. That’s what gives them sex appeal. These are the industries, which at least at a rhetoric level, media studies degrees seem to offer a preparation for. But the idea of ‘creative industry’ seems to encompass so much that the term is almost meaninglessness, it is such an empty signifier. I’ve heard everything from film and TV production to book-binding described as creative. I mean, essentially all industry is ‘creative’, isn’t it?

    But the key here is that there’s a lot of kudos that comes with the label ‘creative industry’ and therefore there are a lot of businesses that would like to wear the label. But that probably means fairly routine and mundane forms of work and employment strive to take on the aura of ‘creative’.

    So an internships with one of these companies isn’t necessarily an entry point to a world of glamour and prestige. I think what we’re looking at is a case of employers just getting people to do menial jobs for nothing (or even getting them to pay for the privilege). Also, as Perlin suggests, internships are proliferating in areas where previously no-one had ever heard of them.

    I’m not sure that the kids I teach are not looking at the high status cultural work you’re referring to. Don’t get me wrong: a lot of them are intelligent and talented. But the good jobs will still go to the Oxbridge graduates, who coincidently are the same ones who can probably afford to work for free or pay for an opportunity.

    So to answer your question (and I know this is a bit radical) but how about organising the entry of people into the ‘sexy’ professions on the basis of talent, qualifications and application? And while we’re at it, why not make it illegal to employ someone for more than 3 weeks without paying them. Three weeks looks like work experience but working indefinitely without pay exploitation. Calling it an internship is just an attempt to dignify and legitimise it.

  4. Rab permalink*
    December 10, 2011 11:03 am

    In fact, just to be clear: I consider allowing firms to take people on three weeks unpaid work experience a concession to the capitalist bastards :0)

  5. December 10, 2011 2:25 pm

    Up to a point, Lord Copper…..

    Yes: people should get paid for working, and recruitment processes should be open, transparent and related to talent and qualifications. (My age may well show, but not so much as I’m disagreeing with those simple principles….). &, yes, there is an active Oxbridge bias in a lot of recruitment to high status jobs.

    My question isn’t totally disposed of by re-affirming such basic principles though. Internships are quite wrong if unpaid – but some people, some of the time, are so desperate to do artsy/sexy type work they’ll do it for nothing*. There’s a supply issue here as well as demand one (by ‘supply’ I mean the conditions under which people are prepared to work, and by ‘demand’ I mean the conditions under which firms offer work).

    Now, I accept that this only really applies in certain kinds of work – no one volunteers to collect supermarket trolleys or scrub hospital floors for free. But many are prepared to work in the arts or media for nothing, at least temporarily, &, yes, their ability to do so is certainly structured by wealth and class “Daddy’s fixed me up with a dinky placement in a darling boutique publishing house…”) – but the will to do so is not totally explained by these factors. Hence, always, bodies like Equity or the Musicians Union have had to attempt to police employers like any other union, but also police entry criteria and acceptable entry routes to their professions. I don’t have a answer to my own question, but I think tackling unpaid internships in the creative professions may well have to learn from those kinds of experiences.

    *Rumour has it you once owned a guitar as a young man yourself….

  6. Rab permalink*
    December 10, 2011 5:27 pm

    I did indeed wield a guitar. And more often than not I didn’t get paid. And even now I’d do it for nothing … if I had the time, alas.

    But I think we’re confusing two types of work here. There is the glamourous professions – a glamour that is often imaginary. Then there are the ‘ordinary’ jobs. Historically graduates have been keen to work for free to get a foot on the ladder of the glamourous trades, but most of us ordinary Joes would have thought it ridiculous to take up an internship at what might have been perceived as a run-of-the-mill firm.

    But, what if we’re facing an inflation of creative industries laying claim to the mantel of glamour – thoroughly ordinary employers and jobs hoping to cash in on the kudos and perks of association with the vacuous term ‘creative industries’?

    My hypothesis is this: the nefarious practices of what was once a ‘elite’ band of industries is being adopted more generally, to such an extent that its entirely conceivable that more and more white collar positions will require the experience of an intern as part of the employment essential criteria. This seems to be what Perlin is indicating. He makes the point that where once the idea of an intern was the preserve of the medical profession, been rolled out into other professions. I’m not sure what time frame he’s using here. I’d assumed that interns where common enough in political offices in the US, and have been for decades. Maybe they got paid.

    I don’t think the idea of union’s policing entry into professions is practical. For a start, what unions are going to do this in the private sector? Is there a web-designers union, to name just one of the emerging careers?

    And as for the idea that ‘no one volunteers to collect supermarket trolleys or scrub hospital floors for free’? Well, no they don’t, but if you want your dole money in the future you might find yourself doing either of these jobs.

    Young people are increasingly being coerced or encouraged into unpaid work as a prerequisite to employment (of varying quality and precariousness). This is on top of the pressure upon them to go to university and accrue huge debts. Beyond a massive change of heart at the centre of government with regards to worlds of education and work, and the relationship between them, I don’t know how to change this. (Wrings hands and shakes head.)

    • Charlieman permalink
      December 12, 2011 8:31 pm

      I am unclear whether UK companies who use the word “intern” mean it in the same way as in the USA. Or whether USA companies use the expression the same way.

      At trade shows etc, I have met UK and EU nationals working for USA IT companies in the EU. They were all bright sparks and were being paid for the work, which was a combination of gofering and more demanding stuff. I have the impression that internship was an extended two way interview process for potential high fliers.

      If internship means taking on a paid entry level role to prove yourself, that’s fine. It was how people learned on the job before every non-manual job required a degree. If internship is being used for cheap (free) labour, perhaps it is time that graduates get used to joining a union.

      • Rab permalink*
        December 13, 2011 8:59 am

        Hi Charlieman,
        I think this is the crux of matter: if it’s a useful learning experience and the intern getting paid something appropriate, what’s the problem? Unfortunately, I think their is a large degree of exploitaton going on at the moment and the term ‘intern’ is lending it a degree of respectability.

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