What a good internship looks like

I no longer spend my days in a baked bean stained dressing gown. I don’t eat Tesco sandwiches bought for a reduced price at five minutes to midnight after going for a walk at an antisocial hour because I had been asleep the whole day and had nothing else to do. I don’t notice stories about the latest eighteen year-old millionaire entrepreneur pop up on my RSS feed as I sit playing games on the internet and wondering whether I should bother to shower and dress. No sir. Not me. Nowadays, I intern in Parliament.

My role is helping my Member (tee hee) answer letters from their constituents. They consist of everyone from embarrassingly obsequious middle-aged people, to the deranged types who clog up the fax machine with sixty pages of rambling every day, to overly politicised young people and their inflammatory remarks about climate change and foreign policy.

I’m glad to have a job, even if it is just a ‘job’. Still, I regret having to get up for 10am, and I miss the things I used to do when I stayed at home. This feels like real work. My first few positions involved no creative thought, which is why having a stimulating challenge feels so odd. I had been used to occasional and laborious admin. With real internships there is something more to get your teeth into and it is an undoubtedly fantastic feeling.

I feel lucky because I know how many dull jobs are out there. I have seen some pretty bad examples. “What’s that?” I once asked, pointing to a buckling, distressed table loaded with so much paper it was as concave as a bathtub. “That? That’s the filing,’ they cackled. ‘We save it for the work experience kids. It only gets done in half terms and holidays!” Hilarious!

Jobs are dull, they are meant to be dull, and part of work experience is proving you can handle that. Filing, after all, is important, and demonstrating you can do it is useful. But is this attitude towards people on work experience fair? Bankers sometimes find their jobs tedious. I doubt they were all happy to be fired. Probably that has something to do with the money, though I won’t know for sure till someone gives me some.

The truth is, employers who create ‘internships’ by storing up their most mind numbingly dull tasks and unleashing them on unpaid grads or sixth formers are monsters. They make my blood boil with anger. I can imagine those in charge of my past internships. They were people who I treated with humiliating deference because I desperately wanted a foot in the door with their company or a good reference. I should have known that this was not going to happen. Their organisations were absolutely incapable of producing anything good. Perhaps they only let you do the most menial of unskilled labour, making it impossible for you to develop your CV. Or worse, they might expect you to do three months of rubbish and refuse to give you a reference for anything less because ‘it isn’t worth their time otherwise’. Or worst of all, they become so used to your free help that they are horrified when you ask to leave; they decide you are ungrateful (no, you didn’t read that the wrong way round) and don’t deserve a reference at all.

It’s all happened to my friends and me. Employers have created a culture where they no longer need to raise the correct amount of money for their payroll, where the young are barely counted as people at all. In return, we enable them by continually giving free time for no guarantees. I can think of former employers who I would like to kick down the stairs. I would then happily carry them upstairs on my back just to kick them down again.

Luckily, I won’t be going to prison for GBH anytime soon. The current people I work for don’t need to keep an eye on their backs, and that’s not just because my office has a terrifying police presence. Why my change of heart? Well, I work for no money, but I am still being paid. My employer actually gives me something back. This isn’t ‘the opportunity to contribute to the world’ of which a previous poster on Interns Anonymous spoke. This person surmised that exposure to the world in general and the chance to improve ones philosophical outlook on one’s chosen profession is a decent substitute for money. I disagree. I have had plenty of life experiences, thank you, and I won’t try to pretend I am fulfilling myself and sending forth karmic goodness by envelope stuffing. What were university and travelling for if not that?

No, the reason I feel ‘paid’ is because my current employers don’t just save up their filing for me. They actually make a lot of effort in return, which is exactly why this internship is so worth my time. Let me try to break it down:

1) They have a structured environment capable of supporting the numbers of people in their office, and they have a clear idea of what each person’s function is. They don’t collect interns pointlessly, they don’t pop off to the shops for milk and come back with stray teenagers, they don’t dress them in rags and have eight of them huddling around a single laptop, they don’t answer every request for something to do with “Well, there’s not much happening right now, it’s the quiet season. Duh. Why are you here?”

2) They take the effort to train you on the job, even when it would be easier for them to just do the task themselves. This is the valuable bit, the stuff you get in exchange for doing their filing. Ideally the training they give is appropriate to the sector – they introduce you to a computer programme that is industry standard, for instance. It can also entail widely applicable qualities like interpersonal or communication skills (i.e. convincing a persistent elderly caller that they don’t pay for their council tax at their MP’s office).

3) Your bosses move you around, rather than just giving you one thing to do for three to six months. They want you to gain a good understanding of the type of business they do, and they make that happen that by sending you to every department you want – and the ones you don’t. Again, this takes more effort because they have to retrain you every time they give you a new set of jobs, but they don’t mind because they recognise how important it is to running a good internship scheme. They equip you with the depth of experience (and not just the length of time at their company) that makes you attractive to employers.

How not to do it: a friend told me about a cash strapped company that needed a receptionist while their full time one went on holiday. They invented a fake ‘receptionist intern’ position that masqueraded as a valuable experience. A highly overqualified woman in her mid-twenties who had been struggling to break into the sector was tricked into giving up two weeks of her life buzzing people in and out of a building. Those entering went upstairs to where the real action was while she remained trapped on the metaphorical and literal ground floor. The people who took her on knew that the experience would bring her nothing, but they still took advantage of her. This story is one of the most disheartening, dishonest practices I have heard of a company doing, and it is only going to get worse while budgets are being cut and the world is getting poorer. Ask ahead, know the value of what is on offer, and make sure this doesn’t happen to you. Hence, the next point:

4) At my interview, I asked i) What skills I could aim to develop while in their company? and ii) What kind of roles their interns went on to take up when they left? My interviewers didn’t look confused or bored. Nor did they laugh nervously and say, ‘That’s funny! None of our interns ever contacted us again!’ They had sharp answers and lots to say. By the end of the interview I had goaded them into talking about how much they valued their jobs, how busy and fulfilled they were, and how interns are trained to do the same tasks they do. They also had a varied list of real paying jobs that people go into after working with them. (Incidentally, they seemed impressed that I was thinking about this, and I would say these questions helped me get the position.)

5) You get the chance to pick up contacts. This is more applicable to some industries than others (i.e. PR) but basically useful to anyone. You should get a phone, your own phone - not on the other side of the office, nor on the other side of the table where an annoying colleague is constantly on it talking about football to his irritating friend downstairs because he is too lazy to shift his arse and convey his ugly face to his ugly mate so they can gurgle like buffoons in the same room - but your own work phone, where others can dial the number or ask the switchboard for you and reliably expect you to be at the other end. They should also provide an email address, your own email address – not the generic one that every crazy person who hates your company’s products can email. These kinds of addresses usually follow the format:

‘info/admin/intern/nonsensereceptical@yourcompanysstupidname.com’

You don’t want this. Your own email address is something that properly embeds you as a real person in their organisation, not a second-class worker. If the IT people are too lazy to do this for someone staying a month, then this should ring alarm bells. What’s more, your employer should give you tasks that require you to use your phone and email from day one.

6) Make sure there is a job description with clear parameters of your duties and the hours expected for you. If you are asked to do something beyond the call of duty, you should decline. I value my current internship. Yet, I sometimes wonder whether pressure on to do more than I agreed. Is it fair to hastily convene the interns and yell, ‘EU election, people! This is part of the job!” Four days of solid campaigning: hauling about flyers to stick in letterboxes marked ‘NO JUNK OF ANY KIND’ while dogs break down front doors to chew your face off and voters chase you out into the street brandishing bits of wood while yelling at you for “Calling at my house and telling me to vote for your bastard party of murderers and thieves.” Campaigning might be an integral part of the job – but why didn’t they tell me that when I turned up to interview? No-one is obliged to do extra hours to campaign, either, but everyone feels compelled to. How can you say no? What kind of reference does that attitude get you?

I have had friends asked to take on large projects well beyond the call of duty. One had to set up meetings with people beyond her organisation and travel to a different city alone for a few days to attend them. Admittedly it would have been a bit weirder if the MD went with her and stayed in the same hotel (“I’ll leave my room key with you in case you want to drop by for any reason, any reason at all”), but you get my point. She was sternly told not to let on that she was an intern while on the business trip. Why? Because it makes the people she speaks to feel unimportant, and that would be unprofessional. More unprofessional than sending someone unpaid to do a real job? Apparently not. It is flattering to be asked to do something like this, and it is definitely good for the CV. However, if she is good enough to do real work, then she should be earning real money.

As it happens, I am glad I did the campaigning because in spite of all the hard work it was still an excellent experience and looks fantastic on my CV (marketing/sales, here I come). But for someone else who didn’t want to do it and didn’t enjoy it – I worry that it would be unfair pressure.

This very minor qualm aside, I think this parliamentary position is a hundred times better than experience any I have done in the past, and I hope this list gives you an idea of what my current employer is doing right and what to look for yourselves. The list isn’t exhaustive but it gives you an idea of the sort of thing to expect for your time. It is a mutual trade, and though you won’t be earning money it doesn’t mean your employer shouldn’t be paying you.

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