My banana scandal certainly seems to have pressed some buttons and comments continue to pour in (you can read the post and billion comments here) . A special shout-out to Lee who wrote an essay on the subject.
I thought I should respond to a couple of points that have been raised in the comments.
Firstly, let me clarify something about the way work experience works in a big office: the staff who provide the tasks for the Workies (as we called them) are usually the most junior people in the office.
Accomodating work experience students takes a lot of extra time and energy for whoever is managing them. This is on top of their regular workload and it’s something the Workies are rarely aware of.
So all this talk about work experience doing "unpaid labour" needs to be put in the context of the "unpaid labour" done by whomever is responsible for looking after them, answering their questions, setting them tasks, supervising the completion of these tasks (and often having to re-do them) and trying to ensure they have a pleasant, educative experience in their chosen workplace.
When I was an editor, the truth is that I didn’t have much to do with work experience. Not because I was superior or a snob or a bitch but because I was JUST TOO BUSY. I had to prioritise the needs of my boss, my staff and my own family above those of work experience. There were simply not enough hours in the day to sit down and have chats with the hundreds of girls who came through our work experience program every year.
Often, this was my loss and I knew it.
When it was possible, I would try to talk to the girls or answer their questions but the demands of my job meant this rarely happened. I always tried though because I knew the work experience girls are not just the readers but likely to be passionate and loyal readers. I always valued hearing their thoughts and opinions about my magazines and magazines in general.
When I was at Cosmo, I designed a questionaire for all work experience girls to fill out and whenever I had time, I’d call them in and ask them to pick their most and least favourite covers from my wall. I was never so arrogant to think I couldn’t learn from them. They were my readers!
As far as menial tasks go, I can’t remember ever asking a work experience student to do anything personally. I didn’t have that kind of involvement with them and anyway, that’s why I had an assistant. That’s not to say they weren’t asked to do things for me by other people. Because sometimes? When she was busy?
I’m sure my assistant on-passed some of the more menial tasks to the work
experience students. In fact, I hope she did! It’s called delegating, prioritising and time management – all crucial when you’re working in any industry.
Hence the banana incident.
I make absolutely no apologies
for this. Work experience is exactly that: EXPERIENCE OF WORK. I don’t
know anyone who started at the top, do you? I don’t know anyone who didn’t have
to do menial, boring tasks when they first began their career.
Even at the highest level, EVERYONE in a workplace still has to do menial, petty, boring tasks – the boss included.
I agree that work experience expectations have sky-rocketed in the last decade and yes, I’m sure much of this has to do with the fact that uni students have worked damn hard and paid damn hard for their degrees. Kudos for that. But in most work places, a degree does not give you immunity from boring, menial, banana-like tasks.
It’s true I don’t have a degree but a few years ago, out of interest, I asked my staff which of them had degrees. All of them did (except the fashion girls). The receptionist had two degrees, one of them law. And she was opening the mail.
Which brings me to my final point.
Some industries are more appealing to work experience students than others. Magazines like Cosmo, Cleo and Dolly are routinely booked out a year or more in advance. I’m sure banks and the RTA have more vacancies. It’s called supply and demand.
No doubt this is because many girls assume working on a magazine is glamorous. Parts of it certainly are. But other parts – most parts – are not. Running errands and doing admin are not glamorous but they are part of working on a magazine.
To accept a student for work experience and show them only the glamour – the shoots and the interviews and the glossy functions and the beauty cupboard – would be doing them a great disservice. That stuff is maybe 5% of the job. The rest is deadlines and admin and re-writing and lugging piles of clothes down to the courier dock. And doing whatever your direct boss asks you to do even if you think you’re ‘above’ it. Because they’re your boss.
We would always spell this out before students came to do work experience. It’s crucial to go into any industry with your eyes open. And I believe part of an employer’s responsibility in providing work experience is to give students a realistic impression of what that work place is really like.
And yes, part of that is understanding that the most junior member of staff will occasionally be required to run an errand for a more senior members of staff who is unable to leave the office at that particular time. This may be coffee, it may be a banana. It’s not unpaid labour, it’s part of the job.
So if you go to a magazine to do work experience, don’t expect to be sitting front row at fashion shows or interviewing Mischa Barton. Those things are the icing, not the cake, and they need to be earned.