Life's work: all work and no pay ...

... makes for a better CV. But are the thousands who begin work experience this summer just modern-day slaves? By Ariadne Birnberg
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When I first settled on journalism I was told to get my foot in the door and put myself about, pushiness and disposability apparently being pertinent to the matter in hand. Then I realised that these were colourful euphemisms for work experience, which in itself was a euphemism for unpaid work, and that there was a lot of it about. I paused briefly, then dived into that huge invisible river of free labour that goes by the name of work experience.

It is seen as a trade-off: free labour in exchange for an upgraded CV, enhanced job prospects, contacts, maybe even a job. Responses from the coal-face ranged from "absolutely amazing", to "a complete waste of time", but it is generally recommended by careers officers, course tutors and employers. And, due to intensifying competition for fewer jobs, it is viewed as an indispensable part of the job search. According to Sue Dirmikis, head of King's College careers office: ''The boom in graduates, combined with the effects of the recession has led to work experience becoming normal practice." Most graduates, their enthusiasm already dulled by a vista of cost-cutting, downsizing and short-termism, take a pragmatic approach. Peter, who spent a month's work experience with a small publishing house, puts the case succinctly: "To get your foot in the door in publishing you need to show dedication and to do that you need to do free work. In a sense they took me for a ride, but then it gave me an advantage over others".

Getting an edge over the competition often forms the rationale behind work experience. Emily spent six weeks with an independent television company after several months on a waiting list. "The ones that are prepared to do anything get the jobs. It's like an initiation ceremony into the industry; it shows that you're tough enough to stick it out", she said. For Emily the gamble paid off. As a result of sticking it out, she got a job as an assistant producer.

The publishing and media industries are saturated with work experience labour. Publishing houses Bloomsbury and Penguin receive up to ten requests for work experience a week, offer candidates anything from two weeks to two months each and have work experience people on the go all year round. This is nothing compared with the experience of the national press and television companies. L!ve TV has "a lever arch file full of applications for the summer" and Channel One receives a minimum of 100 requests a week, with those taken on staying for a few months. The Guardian and Observer are similarly besieged, with more than 100 requests a week. Both papers have resorted to printing a rejection post-card for "99 per cent'' of the applicants. In every case, the usefulness of those on work experience is undisputed. A spokeswoman for the Guardian Media Group said: "They can be useful. They throw themselves into the work and do anything we ask them." With such an endless supply of willing, but unemployed graduates apparently fixated by the glamour of the media, are employers taking advantage of the situation? When does experience slide into exploitation, and does anyone care? Tim Gopsill, editor of the NUJ's magazine, The Journalist, is in no doubt.

"Unfortunately, there are plenty of people desperate to get in who aren't concerned about being exploited and who are being used as a source of free labour." NUJ policy towards work experience is threefold: it should only be part of a recognised training scheme; work that is published should be at the normal freelance rate; and those on work experience should never replace staff. But Gopsill accepts that these guidelines are seldom observed: "If people are banging on doors, which editor is going to turn them down?"

And there are always the success stories. Luck, an editor's hunch and word of mouth still play a big role in media recruitment processes, and work experience hopefuls trade on that. Nick Barber, now the rock critic on this newspaper, started out as a "workie". "A friend of mine on work experience left, and I took her place", he said. "I spent the first few days doing tiny things, 100- word interviews, proof reading, just floating around. Then Kurt Cobain died. I wrote a piece about what happens to band members when their lead dies and showed it to the arts editor. He liked it, and put it in the paper. That was my 'big break'."

Few experiences are as providentially fruitful as Barber's. Most work experience occurs on an ad hoc basis, and this is often a cause of bad feeling and misunderstanding. "Employers need to ensure that something is built in that makes it worthwhile for the person on work experience," said Dirmikis.

Lack of planning can occur even on college work placements. Joan is on a 10-week work placement with a local housing management office as part of her MSc in housing management. She has ended up helping to run the office. "It's Catch 22. The phone calls have to be answeredand since they're understaffed, I'm lumbered with it. I'm struggling against the feeling that I'm being used as free labour."

There are few formal work experience schemes for graduates. Some solicitors' firms and chartered accountants offer structured, paid work experience programmes that are used by the employers as a part of the recruitment process. However competition for these placements is likely to be more intense than for getting a job. The rest - that river of informal, unorganised unpaid labour - is trickier to quantify, and easier to abuse.