Work experience: exploitation or opportunity?

How many coffees?

Once upon a time I would have shined the shoes of an editor if it meant I got to hang around a newsroom and inhale the heady-smells of fresh ink as the papers rolled off the presses. I would have made the coffee. I would have danced on cue, had anyone demanded it.

When I landed my cadetship I arrived at work an hour early and always left hours late – unpaid – because it meant I was surrounded by the process and learning, learning, learning. It wasn’t work, as such. Or at least it didn’t feel like it.

Was I exploited? Probably. Did I care? Hardly.

Who are these work experience students demanding to be paid? If your employer is on their game, you are being paid. In knowledge. In experience! It’s hard to crack into the job market with even a degree these days. Employers want some depth. Some on-the-job training.

Of course, some people really are taken for a ride. Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman will investigate claims young people are being shafted by unscrupulous employers making them work for free – sometimes up to a year –  without offering them employment at the end of it. Fair enough, that’s tough. Some examples from

– A university student studying teaching who worked for a year at a school without being paid in the hope it would further a career.

– A bar worker who also worked unpaid for about a year at a city venue.

But I’ve seen the opposite, too. I’ve seen 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds waltz into newsrooms and offices expecting to be treated as publishing mavens with all the experience of people who’ve been doing the job for years, decades. Going to the Post Office is beneath them, you see. Getting lunch for someone is a terrible affront to their well-honed craft, you see.

I would have queued in a Post Office for a thousand years if it meant an editor spent just five minutes telling me about his job. I would have licked 100 stamps with my own tongue.

I had some sense about me. It’s not like I would have interned with a mad scientist (“I just need you to strap this needle device to your chest”) or given up my time for Cat Walkers R Us. But where it counted, I gladly would have gone.

Maybe I’m a sucker, a glutton for punishment. But … it worked.

Let’s ask my own boss and former work experience wrangler Mia Freedman some questions for her take.

I made this tea and got this sandwich myself

Q: Why do employers even have work experience students and interns anyway?

A: There are two reasons usually. One is altruistic – the desire to give experience to those looking to get into the field. And of course there is a more self-interested reason: to get help with some of the tasks your paid staff members don’t have time to do. Ideally, it’s a combination of both reasons.

Q: Isn’t it exploitation? Getting someone to do all the crappy jobs without paying them?

A: Well, if either party has that attitude, it’s not going to work. There has to be an understanding that it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. The student gets some experience they otherwise couldn’t get. And the employer gets some help.

Q: What’s the biggest misconception about interning?

That it’s just free labour or that they’re being exploited. Also, that they will be doing skilled or senior tasks. Interns and work experience students need to understand that work places are extremely busy. There are rarely enough staff and never enough hours in a day. In the media, the environment is usually high stress and high stakes. Mistakes can be potentially embarrassing for an organisation and even have legal implications.

Having an intern around means that everyone has to notice they’re there and often adapt their behaviour accordingly. There are private or industry specific things that are discussed in the course of a working day that aren’t appropriate for interns to be part of. That’s why you can’t just “sit in on meetings and learn”.

Q: So, what should interns expect?

A: Maintaining a good intern program takes time. The employer needs to do a thorough job description and the intern needs to be aware of the kinds of tasks they’ll be doing. Everyone needs to be comfortable. You don’t want to do it? No problem. There’s probably a queue behind you that stretches around the block.

Interns can’t be given senior or skilled tasks because if things go wrong, there can be huge consequences for the organisation. At the smaller end of the scale, it just takes twice as long to redo the task or undo errors. That’s not to say an intern can’t advance and take on more responsibilities but you have to be patient. Don’t come into a website expecting to write posts and don’t come into a magazine expecting to choose the cover.

I’ve seen both happen so many times and it’s frustrating for everyone. Manage your expectations. Listen and learn. And ask straight away about their social media policy. Find out what is appropriate information for you to share with your own networks and on your own Tumblrs or blogs.

Many organisations would be horrified if they found out an intern or work experience student was sharing information (even if it seems harmless) about their placement online.

Did you do work experience? Have you been an intern? Did you feel exploited or lucky?


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