It’s time to stop bashing interns

Written for Telegraph Men.

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A plea to journalists: don’t troll your interns

What is it with journalists having a go at interns lately? Brendan O’Neill did it in August for The Spectator, with an imbecilic ‘Why interns don’t deserve pay’ piece, and Ed Cumming has told interns in The Telegraph today that they “should stop complaining and work for free”.

Cumming, who studied English at Clare College, Cambridge, writes of aspiring student journalists: “There are no lengths to which I will not go to keep those prodigious little Oxbridge s**** off my turf”.

He also wrote for Varsity, a Cambridge student newspaper, but is nonetheless derogatory about interns “who drone on all week about their fine work for the satirical university paper”.

So it seems there is more than a little self-loathing going on here. It’s clear that Cumming, along with O’Neill, are trolling. But it takes some chutzpah to slam precisely the sort of intern that Cumming, by his own confession, was just a few years ago.

Once an intern is performing tasks that a paid staffer would otherwise have to do then he or she deserves to be paid. It is that simple, both morally and legally.

It’s difficult to find anything resembling a coherent argument for why interns should be grateful to work for free. Instead there are plenty of dubious assertions.

Take this. “I am always staggered by the number of interns who come to the Telegraph apparently with the expectation that at the end of the week they’ll be given a column with a fat salary and that will be that.”

That’s not true. Most newspaper interns, especially those who are new to the business, arrive with a shy and deferential attitude to their temporary colleagues. Big newsrooms are scary places and journalists, at first sight, are either fiercely intelligent or just plain fierce. Interns, few of whom are able to demand payment, do not demand columns.

If they do “go home at 4pm without suggesting an article”, then maybe that is because they lack initiative. As a serial intern myself I’ve met plenty of young people – typically the ones who have been set up on the internship by a close friend or relative – who don’t have the faintest clue.

In most cases however interns just don’t feel welcome in the office. That’s generally not the fault of journalists. They’re usually mad busy, especially as the peak intern season coincides with the summer break – when staff take their summer holidays leaving more work for the remaining staff to hoover up.

Of course the fact that there is more to do over the holiday season should represent an opportunity for interns to step in and prove themselves. But when aspiring journalists read the sort of derogatory drivel that Cumming posted today, they can be forgiven for hiding meekly in the corner.

Interview: Hazel Blears

This is an interview I did with Hazel Blears, New Labour-ite and former Cabinet Minister, some months ago for Cherwell. I talked to her about the murky world of internships.

The first thing that strikes you about Hazel is her height – 4ft.10, the ‘motorized munchkin’ of British politics. The second thing I learnt precluded me from mentioning the first; she’s fiery – sugary sweet but not to be crossed. Suggesting a resemblance with Dolores Umbridge of the Harry Potter series would be cruel, but since the thought provokes a chuckle then superficially at least the comparison contains truth.

The daughter of a maintenance fitter, Hazel came into a firmly working-class tradition. She went to grammar school followed by Trent Polytechnic. Practicing law was her unambiguous aspiration; she describes herself then as ‘an angry young woman’ who saw law as a way to ‘stand up for people’. Was it simply a stepping stone into politics? Apparently not, though through emotively recounting the story of a job interview after graduating, it seems to have been on the agenda from the early days. After sending out ‘300 letters without reply’ she’d only been given one interview, and only since her father was doing nuts-and-bolts stuff on the company’s shop floor. ‘Half way through the interview’ however ‘the partner asked what my Dad did for the company. When I told him he was a fitter on the shop floor he closed his folder and said ‘Good Morning, I think I’ve heard enough’ and showed me the door’. This New Labour politician was inducted into the Old Labour world view of class politics at a fragile young age.

‘I realised then that it wasn’t lawyers who changed the world…the people who really change the balance of power between rich and poor are politicians. That really gave me the impetus to go for Parliament’. That wasn’t easy either. Before 1997, she had fought two seats – one ‘unwinnable’ (Tatton, then Neil Hamilton’s fiefdom) and the other (Bury South, where she lost by only 700 votes) distinctly ‘winnable’. Her disappointment over losing in Bury was an experience she coyly describes as ‘character building’. She recounts having to abandon her job and livelihood to stand, and for a while it seemed she would win. In the final week of the campaign however, following Kinnock’s notoriously hubristic Sheffield Rally and a concerted attack by the Murdoch Press, her hard work was undone. You can’t help but feel sympathy for those swing-seat constituency candidates. They must sacrifice almost everything to acheive victory, even though the end result is ultimately the consequence of national mood-swings which, on a local level, appear whimsical and callous.

A tough ride into Parliament meant that once inside she wasn’t afraid of rubbing people up the wrong way. Frank Dobson once expressed his enthusiasm for global warming through a deep aversion to Blears since ‘the rising sea levels would get her first’. Her most theatrical moment came in 2009 when she unsubtly sought to ‘rock the boat’ by resigning from Cabinet. The Labour Party prizes collegial loyalty above all else; such a blatant act of treachery combined with an unreconstructed Blairism and dodgy expenses claims has seen her stock fall among Labour insiders, rendering a return to the front-bench inconceivable.

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Yet at 56, in one of the safest seats in the country (Salford, a city ‘deep in my blood’), Hazel’s career is far from over. Like a large number of former New Labour ministers who face backbench renunciation in a Miliband government, Hazel has become a vigorous parliamentarian, campaigning most recently for universally paid internships.

The current arrangement, whereby new graduates in competitive industries must submit to years of slave labour before maybe getting a paid contract, is tough to argue for. Having Hazel as the opponent makes it all the more difficult. I had thought I was fairly clued up on the issue, insecure in the knowledge that I’ll shortly be entering the rat race. Yet my ignorance of the law, and Blears’ expertise in it opened up a fruitful discussion. ‘Unpaid internships are illegal. Under National Minimum Wage legislation, if a person has set hours and set tasks, then they are legally an employee, entitled to the [NMW]’. Indeed the concept of an ‘intern’ has no definition in British law; as Hazel describes it’s a wholly ‘American import’. If you are not an employee, you are a volunteer. Interns – with their concrete working shifts and very real workloads – very much fall into the former. Try taking a day off work as an intern and see what happens.

The point is that no new legislation is needed; the government simply ‘needs to enforce what’s already on the Statute’. However a quick scan of the popular w4mp website, where most parliamentary internships are advertised, shows how Parliament flouts the law it approved itself fourteen years ago. Martin Vickers, a Tory MP, has recently advertised a 6 month unpaid internship. When I contacted his office, his parliamentary aide was quick to reply pointing out that, having himself worked as an unpaid intern, ‘[he] benefited immeasurably from the experience and was [subsequently] successful in securing paid employment in a career I love’. In the past some interns had been paid, ‘depending on their individual circumstances and the availability of funds’ in the office.

I put it to Blears that the good intentions of the campaign betray its naivety. If the problem is a deficit of working-class people in politics, then isn’t the requirement for MPs’ offices to pay them a salary – making it more costly to offer internships – counter-productive? In the murky world of upper-middle class patronage, the few remaining ones will be doled out by MPs to personal contacts and family friends. She’s not persuaded, recounting Tory scaremongering over the NMW, which despite concerns about youth unemployment substantially raising living standards in the bottom decile with no extra unemployment. I suspect the two cases are less than analogous. Indeed it simply is not credible that salaried internships will lead to anything other than their intense scarcity, especially given how sensitive politicians like Vickers are to be seen to provide taxpayer value. But this misses the point, which is that the number of internships available does nothing for social mobility if they are all occupied by rich kids. In other words, fewer overall internships are a fair price to pay for a more equitable distribution of the opportunities entailed by them.

As she rightly notes, it’s not just young people who have a stake in this; ‘the country as whole loses out [in terms of] talent and creativity’. Indeed by allowing internships to be captured by the wealthy we are hugely restricting the talent pool from which to dram tomorrow’s leaders. If Roy Hodgson, the England Manager, decided to only pick players with rich parents, there would be uproar. Not just because of the unfairness – debasing an honour (playing for ones country) by discriminating on income as opposed to merit – but because the team would be pants. The decision would rightly be seen as a massive, self-inflicted own-goal (to exhaust the metaphor).

Leaving Portcullis House I speak with Kay, Hazel’s intern, about her experience. She’d previously nurtured vague political aspirations but hadn’t realised, until now, how getting ahead in the Westminster village ‘is all about the connections’ which she’s tentatively started making. Gazing around the central atrium Kay is a refreshing contrast to the other floppy-haired, self-assured SPADs I observe busying about. If more parliamentarians adopted intern-pay, if we had more Kays, I daresay the next generation’s political leaders would seem considerably less odious.

HuffPost: ‘How not to apply for a Banking Internship’

Reproduced from the Huffington Post

Though coveted by the Oxford masses, I have never been wedded to a career in finance. But breaking into the world of journalism is famously fickle and so – petrified at the prospect of inactivity next summer – I decided to begin looking elsewhere for work experience. Banking was the obvious choice. The prospect of earning £4000 was entirely palatable, and my ineptitude with numbers doesn’t quite amount to a phobia – so on a dull Sunday afternoon from the comfort of my laptop I gave it a shot.

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To my horror I catapulted through the preliminary stages – which involved a short exercise in form-filling and a couple of psychometric tests (the effect of which after a while is crushingly psychedelic). I was then invited to a telephone interview, which I wrote neatly into my diary before duly forgetting about it until the designated morning. Half-way through watching the first episode of Channel 4’s hit series Fresh Meat, the phone rang.

What followed was probably the most excruciating 60 minutes of my life; and that includes the abject terror of the primary school disco. I will respectfully preserve the bank’s anonymity; let’s just call it Bank X for now:
The first question: “what have you heard about X in the news recently?”. Beat. “Yes, I follow financial news very closely”, I reply with all the composure of an ignoramus on QI. Silence. Apparently this won’t do. ‘Shit, ok, don’t say Libor, don’t say Libor, just don’t’ I instruct the vocal cords as my mind frenzies for something slightly more ingratiating. ‘Nope, nothing? Right ok let’s go with it’.

“Libor” I whimper, immediately throwing some inane platitudes about it being an “industry-wide concern” into the huge pile of dung I’d just delivered to his door. I recall not so long ago an inebriated cousin, twice or thrice removed, informing an entirely sober Great Aunt that he thought she’d already “kicked the bucket”. This was worse.

And it didn’t get much better. I reported reading their annual report. Smelling a rat he asked me what I found most interesting about it. Dead end. I then stumbled through the inevitable ‘overcoming a challenge’ question without too much grief. Far more difficult to swindle my way through was ‘Give an example of a situation in which you’ve had to process and respond to data’. Yuk, spreadsheets terrify me and figuring out the unit price of 3-for-2 ready meals in Tesco is normally sufficient to send my cerebral cortex into a tail spin. I considered making a self-deprecating joke to that effect but by this stage the general air of sympathy and understanding had evaporated.

Predictably Bank X sent me this message last week: “When selecting successful candidates we look for evidence of all of our leadership behaviours, and strong motivation to join the FLDP [Future Leaders Development Programme]. Unfortunately on this occasion we did not see enough evidence of the above to progress your application to the next stage.”

Wholly accurate, and I think a reassuring sign of the renewed health of the banking industry. Oscar Wilde famously commented that he would not wish to belong to any club that would accept him as a member. Similarly I reason, any bank prepared to hire me should immediately have their licence revoked. In this regard I have since offered my services to the Financial Standards Authority as an undercover applicant. I’m still waiting to hear back from them.

Now it’s easy to be flippant, you might say, when finance is not my ultimate aspiration. Tragically there will be, to borrow a recent turn of phrase, binders full of rejects who have their heart and soul set on finance. No irreverent words can bring comfort to them. Except this: my sneaking suspicion is that the whole internship racket is far less fun than the lovely HR people make out. Not that I’ll ever find out of course, but perhaps someone could let me know?

OK to Sell Internships?

Reprinted from the Huffington Post:

Is it okay to sell internships? We know that the Conservative Party certainly thinks so. Their ball last year raised tens of thousands of pounds flogging off plum internships inImage finance, industry and the media to Tory donors.

Cases like that one immediately invoke repulsion, but what if the money raised is going to a good cause?

Take a look at this now-elapsed charity auction raising money for an extremely worthy cause. There were 50 lots, selling all manner of sparkly items and experiences. Some of the most popular lots though were those selling work experience placements and one, a two week placement at the Sunday Times, finally went for over £2820.

It sounds like a lot, but in the context of a promoting a son or daughter’s fledgling career it’s a small investment to make.

The internships were advertised as ‘experiences’. The recipients as well as their benefactors will surely sleep easy in the knowledge not that they’ve bought a step up in life, but simply a worthwhile ‘experience’. The word is evasive, equating a market in internships to one in any other leisurely activity. Of course we all know it isn’t.

Can one imagine a society in which jobs – especially the lucrative, coveted ones – were auctioned off, rather than allocated on the basis of merit? A country in which young people scour the Sunday supplements in search of a profession they can afford to enter, rather than one they might excel in? No, but in a more insidious way it remains the state we are in. A tight jobs market requires applicants to have interned, for which they must typically have performed unremunerated labour or, as these ugly cases represent, bought outright.

Sellling off internships stinks; it is intrinsically immoral. There can be no justification for it. Yet in the fiercest job market for young people since the early 1980s young people are in no position to end the practice.