Alec Dudson on the future of internships

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Alec Dudson
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Every month we invite creative professionals to share their thoughts on a topic they care about from the creative world of work. This month, we're hearing from founder and editor in chief of Intern magazine, Alec Dudson on what the future of internships looks like for the creative industry.

I first found out what internships were in 2011. Having graduated from university with not much of a clear idea of what I wanted to do for (what seemed like) the rest of my working life, I’d spent about as much time as possible putting off the big decision. Then, the creative industries drew me in. Independent magazines were what I wanted to be part of, but wherever I looked for a route in, the word “internship” awaited.

What frustrated and puzzled me at the time was how vague the information was around these positions. What did the job consist of? What were the hours? Was there any pay? Over time, I came to realize of course that the absence of information was deliberate as these “jobs” were typically unpaid, unstructured and legally questionable.

I landed a paid internship, albeit in Italy and then returned to the UK to work an unpaid one, which was made possible through working in a pub evenings and weekends and sofa surfing. Surely this wasn’t the only way to get a start in a creative career? Perhaps it was the circles I was in at the time, but the more people I met, the more similar tales I heard of being expected to work unpaid for an undetermined period of time before anyone would deem you worthy of a “proper job”.

Once my unpaid internship drew to a close, with no opportunities any closer, I decided to start my own publication, Intern, as a platform that could empower those in a similar situation. As such, I’ve been keeping an eye on the world of internships for the past decade. I’m not going to bore you with a historical recounting of that journey, but instead reflect on the changes that I have seen over time and speculate as to what the future of internships could well look like.

First of all, let’s establish one fact. Unpaid internships are still rife in the creative industries. It’s a practice that I find completely unacceptable, but I’m going to try to tone down my bias in this piece in the interest of offering a balanced look at the topic.

What is encouraging for those of you out there who may be looking for your first role in the industry, is that it’s become a lot less acceptable to blatantly advertise for unpaid work. Callout/cancel culture is undoubtedly problematic, but the prospect of being savaged on the internet has made a lot of employers rethink their approach. The change has been forced by people unleashing their inner Howard Beale (see 1976 film Network) and telling the industry that they’re sick of being taken advantage of, locked out and demeaned. This is how change comes about.

The disappearance of overt calls for unpaid workers doesn’t mean that these things don’t take place now, but they tend to be deals negotiated verbally, or responses to speculative emails to studios or agencies whose work you admire. I want the future of internships to be universally paid and for that to happen, enough people need to turn down the unpaid work.

Legally-speaking, 99% (a lazy, but probably quite accurate estimate) of unpaid internships are illegal under UK law. So I’d encourage you to familiarise yourself with your employment rights and to share that knowledge with your friends. You can refer to the government site on the matter, see if a role sounds similar to the ‘worker’ employment status and refer to resources like ACAS for further clarity on your employment rights.

The current government isn’t too bothered about unpaid internships and thankfully a Labour MPs bill to “prohibit” unpaid work experience of more than four weeks thankfully hasn’t yet progressed beyond a second reading in the commons. If it does make it into law, it will effectively legalise month-long unpaid internships and that would create a dangerous economy of green-lit unpaid work which I can assure you would be leapt upon by companies large and small across the creative sector.

As things stand though, the future of internships instead looks like there is hope for unpaid work slowly fading from the scene as conscientious, smart and well-run companies see the value in paid positions.

Paying interns does a number of transformative things. It increases access dramatically, making it financially feasible for a far more diverse range of people to make their first steps into the industry. Creative environments thrive when staffed by genuinely diverse teams and in a world where audiences are becoming ever more nuanced, having people who truly understand and represent those audiences in your team is pretty essential.

It also gives you as a company a far greater chance of attracting great talent. Most people will pick a paid role over an unpaid role and if you want that talent to stick around, treating them with respect from the get-go gives you a better chance of that happening.

The social pressure on companies has also extended to job sites and a number (including If You Could Jobs) no longer advertise unpaid roles (a policy which prohibits entry level and junior roles being advertised without salary information), with many also taking steps to discourage or ban companies from salary cloaking. This is positive momentum that can continue to empower entry-level workers across the creative industries, that should give them confidence to always demand a wage and to force companies to really rethink their approach to internships, so that they generate value for both parties.

If that is a future that you’d like to see, stand up for yourself on your internship search. Only take a paid role (minimum wage and above). When you do that, you don’t just fight for your worth, you’re fighting for others as well.

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