Tom Meltzer: The role of a work experience person…

There is a crucial difference between work experience and work. Work is being productive for money. Work experience is being useless for free. At least it was the first few times. With six placements under my belt, I finally understand how to make sense of it. Like most things in life, it’s basically an elaborate bluff.

The role of a work experience person is to turn up at an office and pretend to have a job there. At the end of the placement, if your performance was really convincing, the employer will assume you already do work there, and start paying you. If your tea-making was a bit wooden, or your photocopying lacked conviction, they’ll see you for the jobless trespasser you are and kick you out.

My first near-work experience came at the age of 16 when, as required by law, our school packed us off to local businesses to encourage us to aim higher. I was sent to a branch of HMV, where I spent two weeks in the stock room robotically sticking barcodes on to the backs of CDs. On the last day, as a reward, they gave me a £15 voucher, which is an exciting amount of money for a nine-year-old. To someone legally entitled to the minimum wage, it was much, much worse than having done the whole thing for free. I made the surprised face you make when a family member gives you a bookmark and said: “Oh wow, thanks!”

Just before graduating, I sent a polite email to Private Eye asking if it was possible to do work experience there. I wasn’t really expecting a reply, and for four months didn’t receive one. Just when I’d forgotten all about it, I got a message saying yes. Within five minutes of turning up, I found myself sitting opposite Ian Hislop and gabbling incoherently about what I’d like to do for the week. Before that, the closest I’d come to a famous person was shaking hands with Trojan from Gladiators. He (Hislop, not Trojan) needed someone to work out which of about 20 pedantic letters was right about how to prove Fermat’s last theorem. I still don’t even know what that is.

Then there were the two weeks I spent pretending to be a researcher at a television production company. Ostensibly a hard-hitting documentary-maker, the company’s output consisted almost entirely of two Identikit programme types. First there’s the catalogue of needlessly violent men - shows like Vinnie Jones’s People Who Have Stabbed Me and The World’s Most Heterosexual Racists. And then there’s the invasive Victorian freakshow, in which a camera crew follows someone severely disfigured around until they break down crying, and then a narrator berates society for making disfigured people cry.

The first week of my placement involved sitting in front of a television transcribing what seemed like a 10-hour interview with an anonymous gangster who, regardless of the question that was asked, always paused, shrugged and then responded: “I would cut them.” It turned out to be good preparation for the second week, when I was tasked with cold-calling Scottish businesses and trying to convince their young female employees to audition for a humiliating new gameshow.

More recently, out of a mixture of boredom, curiosity and masochism, I spent a week at Peaches Geldof’s new magazine Disappear Here. The magazine claims to be about “all the tiny pieces of pop culture we love”, which turned out to mean unbelievably obscure bands and people with their bums showing. Day one saw me sent out on to Oxford Street to ask strangers questions such as “Would you rather have no arms or no legs?” and “What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever done a wee?”. Peaches didn’t turn up to the office even once, so my bosses were two identically dressed indie kids called Dave and Dan who, despite their habit of drawing genitalia on any available piece of paper, turned out to be surprisingly human.

Then there’s G2. Hello! If Private Eye had thrown me in at the deep end, G2 carried me round to the other side of the pool and repeatedly smashed my head against the concrete. First, it sent me into the G20 protests to be “kettled” by police, and then it asked me to distill the experience into a humorous graph. Which was nothing compared to today, when they asked me to fill in for Charlie Brooker. You know, Charlie Brooker, the best columnist ever? Thanks guys.

This article originally appeared in the Guardian. Tom Meltzer, on work experience there, was filling in for Charlie Brooker.

0 Responses to “Tom Meltzer: The role of a work experience person…”

  1. No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Interns Anonymous

We want this website to be a forum for interns to share their experiences and discuss the ethics of unpaid employment. Most importantly, we want this site to be a place where YOU can tell us your story.

We are now on Twitter

  • RT @daveatBACK40: Different types of internships [cartoon] 1 day ago

Survey for parliamentary interns

Are you or have you been an unpaid parliamentary intern? If yes then please take our anonymous survey on the experiences of Westminster interns. You can find the survey by clicking the ‘survey’ link at the top of the website.


Interns Anonymous accept no responsibility for the contents of the blog, comments or any other content on this site that is posted or provided by third parties. This website is designed to act as a forum for interns to share experiences and opinions about their work, therefore, we will not censor opinions we do not agree with. The opinions stated in blog contributions do not represent those of Interns Anonymous. We will refrain from mentioning organisations and individuals by name. We disclaim all liability for such content to the fullest extent permitted by law. If you have any queries please email us.