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With high levels of unemployment among 16-24 year olds, the rise of the dreaded NEET and Uni leavers facing rising tuition fee debt, bagging the job you want is a tough gig these days.

We’ve all been there – trapped in the cycle of not being offered any jobs due to a lack of experience, and not being able to get any experience unless someone throws a bone and takes a punt. Starting out in the working world is becoming near-on impossible without experience, cue the unpaid internship.

Internships: I've done several, but are they really  worth it?

Internships: I’ve done several, but are they really worth it?

In the last few years there has been a proliferation of places available on internship schemes, becoming the most popular way for people to gain that all-important experience in their desired field. There’s always the chance, too, that you could impress and land a full-time role. But they’re by no means a golden ticket to the first rung on the ladder.

Now, young people leaving education with no job to go to could be made to do three months’ full-time unpaid work experience with charities and social enterprises or face benefit cuts, should government proposals come into force. Whilst I recognise how vital experience is to getting a job in this climate, I simply can’t justify conscripting school, college and Uni leavers into unpaid work.

Looking back, I’ve seen the good and bad side of unpaid work experience. When I left school after sixth form I volunteered for three week’s worth at my local rag and found the experience genuinely worthwhile. I guess it’s because they invested time into the experience for me – made the effort to build a programme of activities that had me working in several departments of the busy newspaper where I gleaned a healthy all-round feel for what working in that environment would be like. I thoroughly enjoyed it and left with my dander up, set on University followed by a career in the media.

Post-grad (and with a media degree burning a hole in my back pocket) I found it difficult to find relevant work, having graduate in the mire of the burgeoning recession. I fell back into looking for experience; I would apply for two or three internships a week, because if they hammer one thing into you at Uni, it’s that you should try to work unpaid for a prestigious organisation in return a vital piece of prestige on your CV.

Eventually I nailed down a six-week placement at one of the largest media agencies there is. I was a long way from home in London and living off £25 a week expenses and it was tough going. I was lucky enough to have family and friends that I could call on, sofa surfing as and when – a couple of weeks here, a couple more there.

During the internship I felt like a bit of a spare part, there was no real coherent programme of work per se and as it went on I felt increasingly excluded from the real work the people around me were doing. I left a little jaded by the whole experience. That said, I make a damn fine cup of tea now.

No, I’m being unfair – both internships taught me a lot. There are lessons to take away from good and bad experiences and both are equally worthwhile. On the other hand, I can’t think of any practical skills I took away from either placement, and that’s where I believe internships are lacking – paid training that is directly relevant to future employment would be a far better offer.

Whilst I certainly don’t advocate forced unpaid internships, the experience of working in the industry of your dreams can be invaluable. I would definitely apply for internships in the future (though I’m probably a little on the old side…) but being able to choose the right one should be the protected right of everyone.

Here’s some points to remember when deciding: to intern, or not to intern?

* Some internships can last months, offering a deep insight into the working environment of your chosen profession – vital for deciding whether you want to continue down that path. If you feel you’re wasting your time then there is no obligation to stay and minimal notice periods, so cut your losses. This contract works both ways, mind, so put the effort in if it’s something you love.

* Internships present a unique opportunity to mix with people both at work and socially that move in the right circles. Use that chance to talk with, learn from and sell yourself to the people you meet, you never know what doors may swing open.

* Don’t get caught in the cycle. To say internships lead to jobs is simply not true. In fact, if anything most internships lead to…more internships. While building up your CV is always good, being taken for a ride by greedy employers isn’t going to get you anywhere.

* Not all experience is interesting or worthwhile. Companies don’t always offer internships out of the kindness of their hearts – it reflects well on them to have a quota of graduates coming through the door, and all too often it’s a revolving door. Some internships are poorly planned and can leave you feeling dejected, especially when you hear that audible sigh each morning as the person you’ve been lumped struggles with their own workload whilst finding things for you to do. Hardly a confidence boost.

* More and more placements are unpaid with minimal money being handed out for travel expenses. Moreover, most internships are based in London. If it’s not viable for you to up and leave for the smog then don’t risk it, it won’t be worth the stress.

So what should the government be doing to help? I see no reason why companies shouldn’t be obliged to pay a basic wage, above that of expenses. I was lucky enough to have somewhere to lay my head and people prepared to stump up the odd hot dinner – what of those that don’t? We have to provide for these people.

Young people (mostly from poorer economic backgrounds) are already facing tough barriers to further education when they leave school, and now the spectre of unpaid work at the threat of benefit cuts?

Be interned or be excluded: the harsh reality of future employment.

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