Working for nothing

Maurice Davies, 23.04.2012
Should interns be paid?
New internship guidelines from the Museums Association succinctly set out six key qualities internships should have.

Crucially, they require there to be a training and development plan – which means the internship won’t be mere unpaid work experience.

Work experience, like volunteering, doesn’t offer any guarantee of skills and knowledge development - but a decent internship should.

But an internship is never likely to be as good as a traineeship, not least because internships tend to be unpaid and (so far) everything called a traineeship is paid.

The MA guidelines say unpaid internships should never last more than three months.

The question of payment for internships is a vexed one. If they offer proper training and development, then perhaps there is a case for unpaid internships (the interns may not get paid, but at least they aren’t expected to pay fees for the training!) On the other hand, there’s a whiff of exploitation around them.

There are also unresolved legal issues: Arts Council England’s guidelines take a legally purist approach and say all internships should be paid at least the minimum wage.

I think the main problem with unpaid internships is that they discriminate against people who can’t afford to work for free. That rules out a lot of people at a time when the museums say they want to diversify their workforce.

Unpaid internships also discourage people with bags of potential and great skills who would quite like to work in museums, but aren't "committed" enough to travel the country in search of unpaid work.

Museums often seem to expect entry-level staff to have museum experience. How are new entrants to get that experience without working for free? I researched and wrote about this problem a few years ago in a controversial report called the Tomorrow People.

Things have changed – but in many ways I think they have changed for the worse. As more and more people chase museum work (and there are fewer jobs) competition gets more fierce and many museums’ expectations of entry-level staff gets ever higher. This means museum work gets more and more restricted to a narrow group.

In theory, training programmes like HLF’s Skills for the Future should make things better. But I worry that many museums are recruiting trainees who have already volunteered and interned.

Are they ruling out huge swathes of the population (those without prior sector experience) from certain Skills for the Future traineeships? There’s a risk that by being kind to unemployed museum-studies graduates and serial interns, we’re missing an opportunity to diversify the workforce.


Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
Mary Phelan
Copywriter, MaryFeatures
02.09.2012, 16:16
Who started this cult of working for nothing?
I am an art history graduate in her fifties, who despaired of ever finding a job in the heritage sector. I am now (slowly) building a copywriting business, but am still assaulted by middle-class friends who assure me that the only way to career success (whose?) is to undergo a stint of unpaid labour in a heritage or media organisation in the (very vapid) hope that a job might come along and 'spot' me.
What part of this do these people not understand: that people like me working unpaid for someone else is akin to my taking money (hard-earned, I do assure you) from my pocket and putting it into the pocket of someone else? The reason that employers pay people to work is because any work relationship is always and ever a joint venture. The employer MUST shoulder his or her fair share of risk and responsibility. With few exceptions, this means compensating employee/trainee/ internee in hard cash, for his or her time. For ever, and amen.