As someone who is looking for their first job in publishing, the question of what to do with unpaid internships is one which is very close to my heart.
Unpaid internships might not be sustainable for long periods of time, but they are a fantastic way of gaining experience and getting yourself noticed. I have applied for more than 50 entry level publishing jobs over the last four months or so. Out of those applications, I have been offered one interview and have been given two lots of general feedback. Most of the other applications haven’t even sent me an email to let me know that the position has been filled, and a small handful have sent a blanket email to everyone who applied. Unpaid internships give you the opportunity to test your skills in the right environment and to prove that you are capable of doing the job you want to do. If these opportunities are lost, will gaining an entry level position in publishing become even more difficult?
It all boils down to what the alternative will be. If unpaid internships are scrapped, what will be the consequences? I don’t mind knowing that in order to get in to my dream profession I need to save up some money to support myself whilst I gain the skills I need to appeal more to employers. It is by no means ideal, but without the pressure of a pay packet, somehow these opportunities seem more within my reach. If unpaid internships are withdrawn, what will replace them? If publishers decide that they cannot sustain as many internships if they are not unpaid, this greatly reduces the number of opportunities out there for people, like myself, who are trying to get into the field.
So if unpaid internships cease to exist, does this not just perpetuate the problem? It will make it even harder for people without contacts in the publishing industry to make it through that all-important first barrier. They will have less of a platform on which to demonstrate their skills and less of an opportunity to prove their skills within their chosen industry. I think a suitable alternative would have to be offered if companies are going to scrap their internship schemes.
If all existing internships become paid opportunities, publishers will have to bear in mind the nature of internships. They are for people with little experience in the industry to learn the ropes and to prove their worth. They shouldn’t be given to people with loads of previous experience because this completely defeats the object of getting new people into the industry.
If publishers have to cut down on the number of internships they offer because they are paying their interns, they should replace those lost opportunities with alternatives. Even if it is a case of breaking down a three-month internship into six twi-week work experience placements within the same department, this will offer prospective employees at least a snapshot of the skills and experience they will need to do the job.
Setting aside another day for interviews to give more people interview experience and to allow them to be given feedback on their applications would also go some way to replacing the void left my unpaid internships. Any helpful advice which could be given to candidates who didn’t quite make the cut would be advantageous in their next application.
I think at the end of the day, it is a question of what is fair. Is it fair to make people work without paying them? Probably not if you can afford to pay them a small salary. Is it fair to take away an opportunity in an industry which is already notoriously difficult to enter? Definitely not if there is nothing to replace it.
Felicity Box is a bookseller at Waterstones.