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The unpaid intern – The comms insider

28 May 2014

I sometimes feel a bit on-edge when reading about proposals to encourage retired people to ‘donate’ their skills to charities. It’s not that I have any problem with older people, it’s that I get a sinking feeling that this is yet another threat to my ability to get paid work.

The rise of the unpaid intern occurred almost exactly at the same time as my first tentative steps into the world of work, and it feels like every time I get to a place where I feel I’m securely on the job ladder, a new layer of unpaid ‘volunteers’ come along making my salary slightly less justifiable.

The problems of being an unpaid intern are well-rehearsed. Having been there myself for the one summer I was able to afford it, it’s just not a sustainable or equitable way of working out who’s going to get access to the best jobs. The problems the existence of unpaid interns cause for paid staff are less often expressed, but they are potentially serious. In comms, the continued use of unpaid ‘volunteers’ in charities, while private and public sector organisations are being forced to pay the minimum wage, could potentially have disastrous impacts, particularly on those at the bottom of organisations.

I often hear the fundraising department among others question my job, one they feel pretty much anyone could do. Many charities, for example, don’t have a press officer, feeling that the fundraising manager or research staff are perfectly able to write up their own activities into press releases and talk to journalists. This perception is only worsened by the presence of unpaid interns. After all, if people who haven’t even got a job yet are able to do it, surely anyone could, right? And why pay a professional, or invest in your press officers’ training and development, if any fresh graduate could do the role for less money? This also poses a problem for the intern: if you’re one of hundreds working for free, how can you possibly demonstrate you are worth a salary, and make the leap up to a paid position?

Charities undermine their own future talent pool by exploiting the availability of unpaid but skilled interns, by making it near impossible to get a foot on the ladder until several years into a career. The added availability of skilled retired professionals will only make this worse, by encouraging organisations to recruit unpaid workers to management roles as well.

The sector obviously has to do a lot with little, and there’s no room for spending money without good reason. But if charities want to continue to have access to loyal and professional comms workers there needs to be a recognition that we are skilled and deserve to be paid for the use of those skills. It’s very difficult to concentrate on work in an organisation which appears to be looking hungrily towards the end of your temporary contract so they can let you go in order to replace you with someone who’s not going to ask for a salary, pension contributions or NI payments.

And from a communications point of view, I’d say it’s not a great look to avoid paying the minimum wage for skilled work when other sectors are beginning to pay up.


Mystery UK charity

The comms insider is an anonymous comms professional working at a UK charity. S/he wishes to remain incognito so as to be able to write frankly about his/her experiences and opinions.