The Creative Society is an arts employment charity that helps young people into jobs in the creative and cultural industries.
Below is the full version of Alex Graham’s article that appeared in The Times on Monday 31 October.
Why expect young people to work for no pay?
Top companies must help to break the vicious circle around jobs and experience
This month, unemployment rose to more than 2.5 million — nearly one in 12 of the population. One in three of those unemployed is aged between 16 and 24. Nearly a million young people are now out of work.
Some apparently see this as an opportunity rather than a threat. Once asked why he was advertising for an unpaid intern, Philip Hammond, now the Defence Secretary, put the free market case succinctly: “I would regard it as an abuse of taxpayer funding to pay for something that is available for nothing.”
Unpaid internships have become the principal entry point for young people seeking work in sectors such as the media, the creative industries and Parliament. The trade union Unite calculates that 450 interns carry out around 18,000 hours of unpaid work in Parliament each week.
I run a TV production company, Wall to Wall, that makes some of the most popular shows in the UK, including Who Do You Think You Are? and New Tricks. As an employer running a £40 million business, I understand how tempting it is to exploit the desperation of young people. Every week I get letters from aspiring researchers begging me to let them work for nothing.
But it’s a temptation we must resist. I’m also a trustee of a charity called New Deal of the Mind, that uses the power of arts institutions and creative industries to get young people into work. Early next year, we plan to launch a campaign to persuade leading employers in our sector to phase out prolonged unpaid internships.
The reasons are simple. Such internships are simply not an option for most young people on the dole. Unless your parents can support you financially, you can’t afford to work for nothing long-term. So most unpaid interns are middle-class kids with relatively well-off parents. New Deal of the Mind’s jobs programme backs this up. Of the participants who took six-month paid work placements, 90 per cent said they would not have been able to take up the offer if it were unpaid. Yet more than 70 per cent of those who did take them up went on to employment or education afterwards.
I know this from my experience too. My mum was a secretary in a school. In 1978, a few weeks before I finished journalism college, she was widowed. Haringey Council kicked me out of my student flat and the bank chopped up my cheque card after I failed to pay off an unauthorised overdraft. I needed a job quickly — and a paid one at that. Fortunately, I won a place on an innovative internship programme with The Sunday Times. During a 15-week placement we were paid a bursary of £750 but any pieces we wrote that made it into the paper were paid for at proper freelance rates. The result was a scheme that minimised the up-front cost to the employer if we didn’t deliver while guaranteeing that we were properly rewarded if we did.
Shed Media, the group of which my company is part, has set up a scheme with the Sheffield Documentary Festival (of which I am chair) to offer one-year paid internships. Our first intern completed the scheme this month and I offered her a full-time job.
At Wall to Wall, we recognise the Catch-22 that you can’t get a job without experience and you can’t get experience without a job. So we offer work experience placements that last a maximum of two weeks. People aren’t paid but they get £50 a week for travel costs and we reimburse any other expenses. If we keep someone on after those two weeks, we pay them.
We also try to ensure that their experience is a good one. In their brief time with us, they experience different aspects of TV production: brainstorming ideas, research, shoots and post-production. We also encourage them to gain confidence, which can be just as important as gaining technical skills.
Encouragingly, many go on to be full-time employees. Jennie Wightman came on work experience in 2008. We were keen to keep her on and offered her the (menial) job of cataloguing our master tapes. It meant she got paid and we got to hang on to her. A few months later, she applied to be production secretary on Who Do You Think You Are? Three years later she’s still with us and has just been on location in Indonesia and the Philippines.
Could we do more? Of course. With the support of the Future Jobs Fund, New Deal of the Mind we could offer longer term paid internships. but that has gone and its successor, the Single Work Programme, is less effective in working with the creative industries.Poignantly, many people who get jobs with us, like Jennie, end up working on Who Do You Think You Are?, which provides a weekly reminder of the transforming power of social mobility.
We’re not talking about handouts. We’re talking about the State partnering with enlightened employers to offer real opportunities to young people. Someone gave me that chance thirty years ago. Will we deny this generation a similar opportunity?