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Experience or exploitation? The perils of working without pay

There are benefits to the practice, recent graduates tell Katie Grant

After leaving full-time education, many find themselves in a classic Catch-22 situation: it seems virtually impossible to get a job without the necessary industry experience, yet the chance of obtaining that crucial work placement is almost as difficult as getting the dream job with more and more people willing to work for free.

Work experience can be a vital stepping stone in the search for employment. The upside is that it can give potential job candidates that much sought-after “real-world” experience. The downside is it is often unpaid, automatically excluding those who can’t afford to work for free. In recent years, companies have come under fierce criticism for enticing eager – or just plain desperate – young people with the slightest glimmer of hope that their placement could lead to paid work in order to obtain free labour.

Moral, legal and financial considerations aside, for Charlie Ball, deputy director of research at the Higher Education Careers Service Unit, the answer is simple: all work experience should be paid.

He admits, however, that “a willingness to do unpaid work experience is seen as a sign of your commitment to that job”.

Helen Flannery, a 22-year-old junior account executive at a Leeds-based PR firm, did a number of unpaid work placements before securing full-time paid work. “It was a real door opener for me,” she says. “Work experience felt like the best way to get an insight into the kind of career I wanted.”

During a placement at a PR agency she realised this was a sector that particularly interested her. “I kept in contact with them as I had really enjoyed it,” she says. “When I graduated they offered me some paid freelance work and shortly after they offered me a full-time position.”

But for Flannery, it was the chance to experience the working world that proved key.

Ball agrees: “Any employer’s first concern is, ‘will this person turn up to work every day and do what they are supposed to?’ By undertaking work experience you are telling a future employer, ‘you can rely on me to come in and do this job’.”

Zaynab Lulat, 25, a researcher at a production company, says work experience was critical in helping her find an interesting career. Lulat volunteered in the PR department of a non-profit organisation after university.

“When you study you can’t imagine what your working life will be like,” she says. “Work experience helps you see what your strongest skills are. I was very lucky to be given a lot of interesting work: writing press releases, going to launch events, assisting on big exposés. I developed skills I could transfer to other jobs: researching, interviewing people, working as part of a team. I can now apply those skills.”

The moral questions surrounding unpaid work experience still loom large, but Flannery and Lulat both believe that working for a short period of time without financial remuneration can be a fair trade-off for the valuable insights, skills and contacts gained.

Nevertheless, if a person of school-leaver age or above is required to show up for a certain time or complete tasks that the company has set, then technically that person is working for the company and should be entitled to the National Minimum Wage.

In undertaking unpaid work experience of this nature it is important to consider just how much you are benefiting from the arrangement and to remember you are free to walk away at any time.