Are internships exploitative?

A while ago I completed a postgraduate journalism course, one of the few nationally to be accredited by the Broadcast Journalism Training Council. It wasn't cheap - a hefty £4500 for around nine months of full-time study, not including additional costs - and needless to say I'm still paying for it now.

Sadly I've not been able to put much of what I've learnt into practice, aside from a couple of stabs at freelancing. A combination of a highly competitive job market and the effects of recession has seen demand for jobs rapidly outstrip supply, with the result that employers can pick and choose who exactly they want to work for them. In short, they can afford to be fussier than ever.

A quick scan down journalism-related posts on any particular website will soon show that virtually every job demands large amounts of previous experience in that field, even for the most lowly paid positions. Ditto for advertised vacancies in other areas; entry level positions have essentially dried up and those which remain frequently specify a frustratingly high amount of specific experience as essential before the offer of an interview will even be considered. For those like myself who seem to spend an inordinate amount of time applying for jobs with a virtually zero success rate it's difficult to imagine how one would ever be in a position to get that experience in the first place.

One of the traditional ways to learn about a job is to undertake work experience, and I did a few stints with various local media outlets both before and during my time as a student. It was a useful way to learn about the fundamental basics of the job and to see whether it really was the career for me. Most of these sorts of placements are rarely longer than a fortnight, and are almost always unpaid.

Whilst no doubt fun, it's fairly obvious that the most limiting factor when it comes to learning on the job in this way is the short amount of time a placement typically lasts. They are essentially an introduction to work but they will never fully develop skills beyond a fairly rudimentary level.

This is a widely acknowledged problem with work experience, and businesses know that students on placements will only be able to contribute a limited amount to the organisation. So what to do about it? Enter the internship.

Internships are just like work experience placements - they are unpaid entry level positions - but with one major difference; they can last for several months. They're becoming increasingly popular in the world of journalism and the media; these two based in London are excellent examples.

This immediately raises several ethical questions; is it exploitative to employ staff without paying them? And is it fair that many people - myself included - won't be able to take advantage of an internship because they simply cannot afford to do them?

Those that support the idea of the internship argue that in this cash-strapped world businesses are offering opportunities for individuals to network and to learn about a job that they are unable to pay a salary for. And for those who cannot afford to work for free in one of the world's most expensive cities? Either they offer internships and some can take advantage, or simply not offer them at all.

It's a tricky conundrum, and given that I've been priced out of opportunities such as these it's hard not to take a partisan stance; that internships have apparently multiplied since the onset of the current recession lends weight to the suspicion that businesses are simply taking advantage. It's galling to think that for a few privileged jobseekers landing that dream job is made all the more likely from gaining experience that eludes the rest of us and which appears to be so vital in securing gainful employment.

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