Unpaid internships

Alistair Brown, 31.05.2017
There is an alternative
The issue of unpaid internships is in the air again. A recent study by the think tank IPPR shows that unpaid internships are on the rise across the UK – particularly in sought-after careers such as museums and the arts.

As if to highlight that trend, last week my Twitter feed was alive with outraged museum workers who were circulating evidence of a particularly brazen attempt to recruit an unpaid intern for 6 months to do what looked like a real post.

You might think that we’ve been here before – and we have. Commentators and policymakers have long recognised the role that unpaid internships play in reinforcing privilege and locking many qualified young people out of their chosen career.

Some political parties want to ban unpaid internships (it’s in Labour’s manifesto for next week’s election), and many organisations have sought to get ahead of the game by drawing up guidelines and policies to ensure that interns are treated fairly.

Yet the unpaid internship is alive and well – indeed, there are apparently more of them than ever. And let’s be clear, we are not talking here about people who do the odd bit of volunteering in a museum or a placement with their studies.

We are talking about people who are recruited to be present at work, usually full-time, and who are often given substantial responsibilities in return for zero pay.

Some museums might feel that this is a good way to get a piece of work done on the cheap while also giving a helping hand to someone early in their career. But this approach confuses what should be a short term professional contract with the structured development opportunity that an internship should reasonably provide. It also potentially puts the museum on shaky legal ground.

The current Museums Association guidelines, which date from 2012, say that no internship should be unpaid for more than 3 months, and should offer a clearly structured development opportunity for interns.

Undoubtedly, that should be a bare minimum for any museum running an internship programme – to my mind, fair pay should be the rule.

But perhaps we also need to think differently about how we recruit new talent into the museums sector.

There are several examples of museums using innovative vocational recruitment, such as Norfolk Museums Service’s Teaching Museum, which provides structured training for people from a range of backgrounds, and the government’s Apprenticeship programme – which is often used to recruit for front of house positions, but rarely for curatorial or learning roles. There are alternatives out there to the cut-throat, cut-price world of the unpaid internship – museums need to offer them.

Alistair Brown is the MA's policy officer. Follow him on Twitter: @acbrown511


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05.06.2017, 06:36
It's a cruel circle..interns accept unpaid internships because they have no or very little choice... and museums offer them because they are getting takers who will intern for nothing or next to nothing. I'm not sure if the sector looses out on talents for untalented or not; if one has no choice but to accept unpaid internship, it doesn't matter how talented one is - one just does it to get a foot (or toe) into the sector.
It's not only in the UK. Where I am now, volunteers who travel for experience and volunteer/work/intern unpaid at museums or heritage sites have created a warped system. A lot in the arts and heritage sector here will accept them in if they do unpaid work. But if they have to be paid, even if it's travel costs, or bare living wages, they refuse them. They can get unpaid 'foreign' volunteers easily. It looks excellent on an unpaid intern CV - working in another country..but the sector gets spoilt.
01.06.2017, 14:00
Unpaid internships are discriminatory. The sector looses out on true talent because young people simply cannot afford the luxury of being an intern, particularly if there are 50 people behind them waiting to do the job for free. It is shocking but true that Museums will take advantage of those who are desperate for experience. This kind of practice only widens the diversity gap further down the line and can deter many from joining the sector.

Traineeships can benefit an entire organisation, not just the trainee. At Norfolk Museums Service they have invested in their trainees and offer a wide range of roles to diverse people. The end result is a cohort of museum professionals with the skills and experience to be able to secure paid jobs in museums without necessarily having a postgraduate degree or the numerous hours of un-paid work. These trainees go on to make positive change and contributions back into the sector.
Rachel Cockett
Director of Development, Birmingham Museums Trust
31.05.2017, 17:33
What Charlotte said.

Additionally if a role is unpaid then that should be made clear in all advertising material, related copy and any agreement, through clear use of the word 'volunteer'.
Charlotte Pratley
Director, Culture Syndicates CIC
31.05.2017, 15:09
We have found that building trainee roles into grant applications adds value to projects: a sector entrant gets paid experience and the museum partner gets cost-free labour. The next step from this is encouraging a stronger culture of business analysis, where museums recognise the value that the trainee brings to the organisation and assesses the business case for creating that post on a more permanent basis. When staff (and budgets) are stretched to capacity, this can be a tough expectation - it's crucial that Boards are forward thinking enough to support this approach, recognise limitations in their existing staff and invest in external support where needed.

With alternative methods of recruitment, we've found that there are misconceptions amongst museum staff about the roles trainees can gain without MA qualifications. This creates a barrier to trialling new methods, as does lack of capacity and support from Boards. The success of Norfolk Museums Service, and the Culture Syndicates model, shows that it is possible - staff (particularly in smaller organisations) need more support to implement positive change.