It’s just to get my foot in the door, I tell myself for the fifth time today as I offer my brain, my degrees and time to someone for free.

It’s a phrase that I’ve always found to be so incredibly visceral. I picture a door just about to slam shut in my face, that I have to hastily shove my foot in before it swings to a heavy close. Or a door that is slightly ajar, an unknown little me comes knocking and I have to slip my foot in and pry the thing open – to beg for an opportunity.

A foot in the door to do tasks which by now should be compensated. Because somehow in my years of trying to find a suitable job, no-one deems my skills to be transferable.

None of these scenarios really paint a picture for a healthy work foundation.

One would think that multiple arts degrees and years of casual jobs following instructions, would qualify me for an “entry level position”.

But it doesn’t. It leaves me cold emailing organisations, asking if they can send their off cuts to me so that I can get exposure. So that I can build a portfolio. So that I can earn a living and build my career.

But in my thinly veiled bitterness I digress. I chose the arts. I chose the creative field where getting your foot in the door is seen as a ‘privilege’. Having worked actual entry level jobs such as gallery host, our role was held up on a pedestal, yet we were not. We were made to simultaneously feel so lucky to have this job and yet so small and very replaceable. Why? Well, because it looks so good on the CV.

But in reality, it hasn’t really done anything to help my long-term career. And while I’ve had some wonderful bosses who have helped mentor me to learn and grow, this no longer seems like valid proof that I can, in fact, progress my career. It also doesn’t help that the pandemic cut arts positions in half.

The issue that lies here is often the refusal in hiring processes to acknowledge transferable skills. Which leaves you wondering, where do you gain these industry specific skills if no one will hire you for entry level jobs? Internships, of course.

Internship or Indenture?

Internships are fascinating mostly because of their prevalence, lack of regulation and lack of overall purpose. A report for the Fair Work Ombudsman by Adelaide Law School in 2013 states that “In Australia, as elsewhere, the term ‘internship’ is without fixed content. It has a broad and uncertain meaning covering everything from unpaid or paid entry level jobs to volunteer work in the not-for-profit sector”. This covers such a breadth of options that no wonder those starting out in their careers can fall into the trap of being exploited.

Internships are rife, particularly in the arts and on a global scale. Note when referring to the arts I include any creative industry, because they all bleed into each other – skills intersect and majority of skills learned are transferrable. There would be no issue with internships… if they were paid, but they rarely are.

In the UK, Sutton Trust is a non-for-profit organisation that fights for youth social mobility. Their work spans research on the prevalence and the social impact that internships have on recent graduates or those looking to change their career. Their 2018 report found that that 86% of arts internships are unpaid. The issue with unpaid internships is that life isn’t free.

Putting numbers on this, to live in London for a month whilst doing an unpaid internship costs £1,019 (about AUD$1800). And to make matters worse, due to the lack of legal clarity surrounding internships, there are concerns that some employers are exploiting this grey area. A harrowing ethical dilemma – getting an extra pair of hands without even attempting to understand their own responsibilities towards interns.

Due to the lack of legal clarity surrounding internships, there are concerns that some employers are exploiting this grey area.

It’s interesting to note that internships are always perceived as a stepping-stone. The Australian National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) has a fact sheet on internships and what to expect, stating that they can be either paid or unpaid but the ‘crux of the situation is that it is an educational exchange’. NAVA go further to highlight the Fair Work Ombudsman’s criteria of an internship as a ‘meaningful learning experience, training or skill development’. This sounds completely reasonable, except when there is a precarious edge that tips easily into exploitation.

Researcher at the University of Montreal, Mirjam Gollmitzer recently detailed the precarious entryways into journalism. Often internships are seen as a socialisation into an industry or workplace, but Gollmitzer states that whilst that is ideal, research shows the opposite.

Through interviews with interns within the journalism industry, she finds interns who are ‘starved of mentorship and training’ and often left to their own devices. She highlights a powerful observation arguing that ‘the tacit assumption is that workers, not employers, are tasked with making the internship a success’.

How do we determine the success or value of an internship? To be seen as a meaningful learning experience, interns require mentorship, an environment to gain confidence and an understanding of how an industry works. Instead, Gollmitzer finds interns are often merely an extra pair of hands doing menial tasks, “with their experiences marred by haphazard interactions with time-strapped colleagues and arbitrary decisions by supervisors.”

The onus should be with employers to ensure interns are offered a valuable and structured experience where they can come out having truly learnt something and be given a genuine leg up in their career.

Instead many interns are left with a bitter taste in their mouth. They’re overworked, under paid (or not at all) and don’t walk away with skills or tangible experience they can take into an entry level job, which seems barely adequate. Which leads to the questions… when did jobs stop being a place of meaningful learning experiences and skill development? And how did we palm this off onto unpaid internships?

How did you get your start?

The above two questions are integral in understanding the shift that has occurred in the workplace. When listening to boomers talk about their start in the industry, often we hear those anecdotes about how they started in the photocopy room and someone noticed their intelligence and they were given a chance. Or how they were internally trained and given qualifications within the organisation.

The fact of the matter is that entering the workforce has been increasingly difficult for young people. The latest statistics from the HILDA Survey by The Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic & Social Research shows that only about 40% of graduates find full-time work in the first year out of full-time education. Their median hourly earnings are about two-thirds of median earnings of all workers, which is abysmal since our cost of living is ever on the rise. But this is certainly part of the discussion surrounding internships. With more and more people unable to find full-time work, we turn to casual work, to subsidise rent and to simply make a living, despite these casual jobs often not actually having relevance to one’s degree or career aspirations.

Casual work is the backbone of all unpaid internships. We all know someone who has worked in a pub whilst doing an unpaid internship in their desired creative field. But this leaves young people with burnout, and a distaste for a particular industry. Imagine that – already having doubts about something you studied just because from the get go you’re told you’re lucky to be working for free.

Nothing in life is free, therefore internships shouldn’t be. Making internships unpaid ‘learning’ experiences often leaves out entire demographics of people who simple cannot afford to work for free. It perpetuates the elite nature of industry, and the idea of the grind straight off the diving block. It’s cruel and unnecessary. Particularly because it wasn’t quite as brutal in different generations. For the first time ever, gen Z are running the risk of earning LESS than their parents, something that has never happened in the course of history.

How do we fix this? While I’m not well versed in economics or capitalism, I do know that people need to be paid for their work. Don’t take on an employee if you don’t have the bandwidth to mentor or financially compensate them. We need to start treating entry level jobs as a first stepping stone into an industry and leave the exploitation of young workers in the past, where it belongs.