01 September 2010

Internship Industry: Opportunity or Opportunity Cost? Updates from the Graduate Job Jungle!

With a degree in Development Studies from a renown university, several years of living and working abroad, demonstrated perseverance to pursue this degree despite involuntary but inevitable enrolment in the sometimes distracting lessons of the School of Life, two internships in international organisations outside my country of origin, PLUS having continuously kept abreast with trainings, seminars and workshops and speaking about five foreign languages, I justifiably have earned my right to be frustrated for lack of job offers, lack of invitations to interviews and the unfortunate timing of an economic recession and its particularly adverse effect on the ideal stepping stone job market for my discipline, namely the UK. You cannot help but ask yourself in annoyance, "What ELSE do they WANT from me?!"

Of course, it never is about you, who you are or who you are not. While it actually is about who matches the requirements for the post best, the truth is probably less rational than that. I do wonder if for a recruiter, all these elaborate job application forms are just like buying a lottery ticket when you already have an income: You have already chosen a job as primary source of income but it never hurts seeing what luck washes ashore.

Being stuck between being over-qualified and under-qualified is really annoying. I looked at university library jobs that look for GCSE graduates and at those where you wouldn't stand a chance without a Masters in Library Management or related discipline (but still can only apply for either of the two identical 20hr/week posts). I had a job interview in a travel book shop, passed the surprise geography pop quiz with flying colours, have travelled extensively, have no commitments, indicated immediate availability and demonstrated a mature work ethic and some knowledge about the key principles of book trade yet they turned me down because they prefer to employ someone who will stay ideally for a lifetime in the same bookshop ("two of our staff have been working here for 15 years"). Good luck. Shame, for I really would have liked to work there. Experiences like these, particularly when they accumulate and are mixed with claims that - at least in the UK - up to 70 graduates apply per job (I wonder if that was calculated from the unemployment rate or a survey of actual jobs advertised), it does make you wonder about current trends in résumé fraud (not to be confused with employment fraud which is advertising jobs that do not exist).

I also applied to Amnesty Austria and received a call - to work as a fundraiser who goes from house to house and gets paid to have doors slammed in her face. I told them I was finished with tuition and was actually applying for a permanent programming job. I was told to apply to Amnesty directly. "Is this not Amnesty?!" Apparently outsourced. Guess what, I email my application to AI Austria and am told that currently there were no vacancies but - care to apply as a volunteer? I couldn't help but sigh in exasperation: I need to EAT, people!

It is frustrating. Considering the amount of time to fill out (online) application forms which ask you to supply three (!) references (standard UK) and the mathematical probability of success, the odds of finding a somewhat acceptable job that pays for the basic necessities in life is let's say, just as high as seeing the Queen pole-dancing on a state dinner. Lacking support or even remote understanding of your immediate environment (in the last several weeks, my family), as well as being physically outside the navel of the aid industry (in Austria, a country not exactly famous for a mentality encouraging and fostering non-conformists), is an additional restriction (even though I cannot complain about the relief of being able to re-allocate energy previously devoted to having housing and food NOT being taken care of). While I do accept compromise (ie working temporarily in a shop), there are things I remember from working in Vienna that I am tired of: Like dealing with bossy supervisors whose world revolves around domination of their 30m2 territory while clearly having no training in (or no care for) leadership skills or customers who do not distinguish between constructive feedback and taking the piss out of being king or queen: Unlike in the UK, where direct harassment of employees in customer-facing roles is deterred to the degree of abuse OF the customer which ultimately leads to parallel conversations and unfulfilled customer needs, in Austria - as in many other countries in Europe - the person who pays for a service actually has the RIGHT to question the delivery or quality of a service or product they PAY FOR and it is commonly understood that he/she deserves a reasonable compensation or an investigation on why things went wrong. In the UK, companies do not care how they can make things BETTER. The only thing they really focus on is on not making things WORSE, a mentality that ultimately leads to stagnation and risk ignorance. On the other hand, the Austrian mentality exposes many employees to the often misdirected rants of unsatisfied customers and people who seek a place to dump the psychological trash they carry around with them.

So I thought, OK, let's be proactive then and write unsolicited applications to organisations I would like to work for. Vienna is small after all and assumably has a small pool of local people with a profile similar to mine, or so I like to think. While this factor might ENHANCE my employability it might also REDUCE it because avenues into certain careers might have been traditionally through established profiles like law or economics graduates and reserved for people with connections. Compared to many UK organisations which due to the larger market understandably are more often than not NOT in a position to reply to personal emails like that (or just too disorganised), I did get a few replies. Sympathetic, polite, interested in case our paths crossed again in the future but all negative.

As if to console me, the emails often included an encouragement or hint to apply for internships. Back to my first sentence: Why should I volunteer my skills, my labour and my time to an organisation to very likely have the same amount of responsibility and scope of duties as a regular member of staff WITHOUT getting paid? Too many companies out there rely on free labour. While I do understand the financial constraints and priorities in allocating funds of development organisations and charities, I also do believe that given the skill and established fundraising culture in the UK, it is actually surprising that a symbolic salary of I would say, 25-50% (depending on skill and line of work) of a permanent staff member's salary cannot be raised to pay for interns, particularly where they constitute a significant proportion of the total employee body (in some cases, 1/3) and make it possible that the "specialists deserving of pay" can manage their workloads. On the other hand, going the way of offering employers the compromise of a sliding scale based on education level and experience creates the risk of favouring the selection of currently enrolled students rather than recent graduates, as I have learned from a friend who interns for an international software company in a context where paid internship regulations exist. While I do appreciate the learning, networking and skill development opportunities as well some of the most (and least) rewarding experiences I have received, I know of appalling cases of institutional exploitation where young talented and motivated people are either given menial tasks or their enthusiasm, skill and hard work are taken for granted. When any of these interns raise legitimate grievances or try to engage in constructive feedback, they are told to be "grateful" for their opportunity. I have also heard of cases where the right to freedom of opinion and assembly during lunch break/after work to discuss internship conditions was actively violated (deletion of an email thread from several intern accounts!), clearly for fear of unionisation, potential whistle-blowing and in any case, scandal . No mediation was offered to de-escalate the situation - and this was the work of a human resources officer (who probably knocked out 80 other applicants when she got hired) working for an advocacy organisation which puts up A3 posters of internal dispute resolution for harassment at the workplace around the building!

While it is understandable that there needs to be some benefit to the employer of paying someone comparatively less experienced than their permanent staff with yet-to-be-proven productivity, there should be fair boundaries and minimum legal standards to ensure that interns do not end up as modern day slaves and to minimise brain waste of children from less advantaged families. There needs to be a culture shift where employers become reasonably accountable to their interns without impeding their flexibility in hiring them.

How timely then that on 06 July 2010, the European Parliament has passed Resolution 2009/2221(INI) on promoting youth access to the labour market, strengthening trainee, internship and apprenticeship status which

"calls on the Commission and the Council...to set up a European Quality Charter on Internships setting out minimum standards for internships...These minimum standards should include an outline of the job description or qualifications to be acquired, a time limit on internships, a minimum allowance based on standard-of-living costs in the place where the internship is performed that comply with national traditions" (p. 21). - Quoted from Mount Eulympus.

One can only hope that the UK, not very keen on continental multilateralismwill ratify and implement this resolution soon. For a further read, have a look at the Sueddeutsche Zeitung article translated HERE into English.

Interns Anonymous, a UK advocacy organisation that I discovered on the net has made a short documentary where you can listen to the views of interns in various sectors:

Another thorn in my eye are organisations that place volunteers abroad for short-time as well as long-term placements. While generally, these can broaden the horizon of people and can do real good and might have sincere motivation to achieve a positive change, offer a solid system of training and have a fair relationship with the receiving organisation (usually located in a developing country), it is lamentable that there are some organisations who see themselves as a business rather than a development organisation. They charge exorbitant fees (for example, £1000) and keep most of it in their own pockets rather than sharing it with their partners. Then there are those organisations which can be broadly described as a volunteer movement rather than an exchange service. I am talking about the Peace Corps, VSO, UNV. A few months back, I confronted an international organisation which has ties with my university careers service and usually places volunteers for 12-18 months as peace workers abroad. The attendance of a residential weekend orientation seminar (assumably to filter the serious applicants from the romanticising flirters) costs £40 (to their credit on a sliding scale to enable low-waged and unemployed students to attend). Considering the fairly long time of the placement, it makes sense to give people an opportunity to find out if this kind of work really is for them. However, most other professional organisations go without wasting human and financial resources on organising a training like that and instead incorporate a group discussion (for free!) in the recruitment process. To put it simply: If you do not know what peace work is to begin with, you might not want to place your life on the line for a year accompanying human rights defenders in dangerous contexts. Admittedly, your presence is supposed to reduce the risk of an attack and statistically, few such volunteers have become victims of any kind of violence. There are cases however like the Maguindanao Massacre where a whole convoy of media people accompanying an election candidate did not help getting them or themselves killed. So in my eyes, unless you want to make money, charging people £40 to find out if they want to do peace work or not is a cash cow, quite frankly (looking at the curriculum of the seminar, it covers basics like, "What is peace work?").

Similarly, while I do appreciate the dedication long term volunteers demonstrate and find the philanthropic aspect of sincere volunteerism - for the right motivations - admirable, I do wonder about the very real challenges of working for practically nothing for a year, expenses covered and small subsistence allowance calculated on local living costs. To be fair, a flight and insurance cover gets thrown into the deal. The latter probably because it is legally required in development work labour law, the former to make sure that the often high price of flying to the often remote destinations does not deter the movement from deploying new volunteers. While the organisation is mainly non-profit and only employs very little paid staff, usually locally hired in field offices, it is a reality that in this one year while your expenses are all covered, you might be missing out on £17-23k per annum in a regular job if you are in my age bracket. Particularly just out of university, the first priority of many students is to get their foot in the door while at the same time dealing with tuition fee debts or subsistence at the very least. So I was just curious as to the level of awareness among recruiters of long-term volunteer placements to these issues and the profile they were envisaging, considering that A-level students are probably too immature for the responsibilities of peace work, BA graduates financially burdened and MA graduates qualified enough to hunt for a "real job". They also tend to be have family commitments in THEIR age bracket. So, who can afford going on such placements? I did not really get an answer to my question but the sentence that left behind the most lasting impression was, "If you're not able to committ [sic!] to the time, then that's a pretty sure sign that you're not ready for it." That's because I am ready to move ON, baby.

Meanwhile, I have become adept at scanning up to 200 job ads in two hours, navigating speedily to the careers site, identifying paid or unpaid, if paid scrolling to requirements to gauge if I am generally eligible, not reading the description of the post and the organisation. At last, I match the recruiters' speed in filtering out - on the other side of the line. If you take only three seconds in looking at my CV, I won't waste a whole day filling out your job application form if there is no chance you'll look at it for another seven. Damn straight, that's my philosophy. In the course of my high-intensity online scan of advertised vacancies, I have to say that despite not wasting time lingering on their descriptions, I saw A LOT of internships advertised where paid jobs should have been. My personal opinion - bias aside - is that internships have mushroomed and paid jobs declined ever since I last hunted for a full-time job and that there is a suspiciously high number of internships per permanent job vacancy.

Don't get me wrong. I LOVED the internships that I did and there are at least two or three in very interesting cities that are intriguing enough for me to actually consider applying and fundraising for them - if I did not have the luxury anymore of working for free and on top of it paying my own travel and accommodation costs. Perhaps my dire circumstances are for the better, preventing me from financially self-destructive career behaviour. Perhaps though they will force me into a spiral of under-employment. Either way, one thing is certain: It would be nice to be able to afford a pair of shoes - for the moment I DO get my foot in the door.

Interesting Links:
Forced Migration Review: "Internships: Rite of Passage for Students of Forced Migration?"
Interns Anonymous Website:
TIME Magazine: "Working for Free: The Boom in Adult Interns"
New York Times: The Unpaid Intern: Legal or Not?

2 courageous comments!:

Kat said...

First off, great article - you know, I could see you as a commentator in a big daily newspaper!

Second, I agree wholeheartedly with what you say. I've been following the internship 'business' for years now and it is getting more and more appalling every year, especially in my sector. I mean, what do people expect, that we are all children of rich parents who don't have think about rent and food? It's ridiculous, especially that one sentence "If you are not prepared to commit, you are not ready." Who do the people think they are?

Also, very nice new layout, love it :).

Heidi said...

Thanks a lot! Your continuous encouragement got me to actually take my writing seriously and get myself immersed in my new creative writing project!

Apparently, internships and by proxy, competitive jobs will in the future be only available to the privileged few. I have read/heard about many who live in crammed hostel dorms while interning for high profile organisations in expensive cities - in 95% of cases entirely on their own expenses (office attire not even included yet).

Come to think of it, I should do an undercover report on unpaid internships for the national news: Get myself hired, roll out my sleeping bag and document their reaction on hidden camera. That would be fun!