Monday, February 28, 2011...1:42 pm

Cashback for Interns: what are workies really worth? A parable of economics

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There’s quite a heated exchange going on over at FleetStreetBlues on the NUJ’s Cashback for Interns campaign here, here and here.
I think we all need to go and clear our heads. Let’s go for a nice walk in the country. Let’s pretend it’s August.
I don’t know about you, but I fancy a few blackberries. All around us are hedgerows of brambles, bulging with ripe fruit – blackberry season is at its height. With a couple of minutes’ work, we could fill a container full of blackberries and eat our fill.
Then we come across a stall selling – blackberries. Should we fork out a couple of quid to get them from the stall, when all around us they are available for free?
That’s not to say the blackberries are of no value – they are very tasty and we really fancy eating some. But they have no price – they are too abundant, so competition (from the hedgerows) has forced the price to, effectively, zero.
There are two approaches the stall-holder could take.

  1. Mount a campaign for the landowner to fence off the hedgerows so people would be unable to reach the blackberries, and so anyone wanting to eat some on their walk would have to buy them from the stall.
  2. Switch from selling blackberries to selling added-value goods such as small disposable bowls, spoons and dollops of cream – which people might buy to enhance their blackberry-eating experience.

Substitute journalism graduates wanting work experience for blackberries and you have a workable analogy for what’s happening in the debate.
The NUJ, and many other commentators, are advocating the first approach – fence off the hedgerows (or, force all employers to pay for interns). On the Cashback for Interns web page, the NUJ says:

Have you worked as an unpaid intern within the past six years? You could be entitled to claim back the National Minimum Wage, regardless of the terms of your internship agreement.

The effect of this – as applied to our country walk – is likely to be that:

  1. The blackberry stall-holder will sell a few more bowls of fruit, but most people will go without the blackberries they would otherwise eat.
  2. The blackberries in the hedgerow will rot on the branch, or be eaten by wildlife.

Which I think pretty much sums up what would happen to journalism graduates (or anyone wanting to get media work experience).
The NUJ, naturally enough, denies that this is what it is aiming for. It says is targeting the long-term exploitation of interns who, in effect, do a full-time job for no wages.
But FleetStreetBlues makes an excellent point about the Law of Unintended Consequences (not their wording): one, unintended, result of any campaign to make employers pay for voluntarily undertaken unpaid work experience could be to make all work experience disappear. Faced by the threat (if not the reality) of retrospective legal action by interns, companies will fight shy of using them.
That’s not to say there is no problem with exploitation of interns, There certainly is – as some journalism graduates from UCA Farnham have found.
The trouble is, so many graduates are trying to get into the media that their willingness to work for nothing for months is taken for granted. That’s because they don’t have much value – there are so many of them that their price has dropped to pretty much nothing.
What’s happening here is that intern experience is a clear market signal. The market is telling us – all of us: publishers, commentators, unions and wannabe hacks – that the price of an intern is zero. Yes – you aren’t actually worth anything in monetary terms.
That’s not to say you aren’t useful – or that publishers don’t get a benefit from using (or abusing) you in the workplace. But that doesn’t mean you can necessarily charge for it in the market.
The solution? Do something more marketable as a degree – you won’t be able to bank on a media career. It’s brutal – but it is the truth.

1 Comment

  • Excellent analogy and very honest. I’m guessing many wannabe journalists aren’t hearing much honesty when they apply for those undergrad and postgrad journalism courses – the HE institutions taking their money are hardly likely to say this kind of thing.
    To my eyes, the unintended consequence of the NUJ’s campaign which you so rightly describe – and which FleetStreetBlues deplores – is in fact a necessary and desirable intervention to help correct an oversupply problem in the market. Unusually, recession has failed to correct it. Maybe this will do the trick.
    I don’t believe that the systems that have pumped up that supply (mainly HE institutions smelling money in meeja courses) have done any favours to anyone. The media business has got used to lazily exploiting cheap/free labour (with all the concomitant temptations for abuse) and thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of youngsters have indebted themselves to gain a qualification that is – as you say – essentially worthless. Many/most will have to retrain, at yet more expense, to find another path in life.
    IMO this is a disgraceful abuse of young people’s hopes and dreams, and a crushing waste of human resources that would have been better channelled – for the country’s benefit, as well as the kids’ – into other careers.

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