DID I GO TOO FAR THIS TIME?
Graduate Fog has already made a new enemy in 2011 — and we’re not even half way through January!
AND I’ve been accused of being “threatening” — when I thought I was being nice! (Perhaps I need to work on my people skills…?)
I’ve also been told:
– “There are plenty of valid reasons why unpaid internships and work experiences are a very good thing” and
– “If people aren’t prepared to work for free they needn’t apply for the unpaid internships.”
More of which shortly.
The trouble kicked off when one of Graduate Fog’s users alerted me to an ad for a six-month unpaid internship with a digital agency called the Blur Group, posted on a website called EscapeTheCity.
I’d heard of EscapeTheCity – and always liked what they were about. I understood that they help people move from jobs they don’t like in the City to jobs that they feel more passionate about, in other fields.
As regular readers know, when tipped off about unpaid internships, I normally go straight in and ask for a statement, as I’ll be blogging about it on Graduate Fog (especially with big companies). But something made me hesitate this time.
Graduate Fog has made a lot of enemies last year, and I wondered whether I should be more strategic about picking my battles in 2011.
So I sent the founders — Rob Symington and Dom Jackman — this email:
FROM: Graduate Fog
TO: Escape the City
SUBJECT: Friendly warning from Graduate Fog
Monday 10 January 2010, 15.05
Hi Rob and Dom,
I’ve been a fan of your site for a while so was a bit disappointed to see that you’re currently advertising unpaid internships, like this one for Blur Group:
The unpaid internships issue is something my users feel extremely strongly about – and I have been campaigning against this practice since my website Graduate Fog launched in April. Although these internships are marketed as a positive ‘learning opportunity’ for young people, this is rarely the case – and more often than not they are a way for companies to cut their costs by ‘hiring’ a young person to do what should be a paid role, for nothing. We believe that – more often than not- unpaid internships simply exploit those who do them, and exclude those who can’t afford to do them.
This morning, one of my (furious) users brought your Blur Group ad to my attention and asked me to ‘name and shame’ you and your client on Graduate Fog, as I have done with lots of others, including Tesco, Harrods, James Caan, Sainbury’s, Comic Relief, Urban Outfitters, etc.
However, I have made a lot of enemies since Graduate Fog launched in April (!) and am careful about picking my battles. Since I’m pretty sure that you are not the bad guys, I have no plans at present to write about the unpaid internships currently advertised on your site. However, just as a courtesy I wanted to let you know that I will be keeping an eye on your site in future.
Best of luck with the site – as I say, I really do like what it’s about
Two hours later, this arrived. EscapetheCity were clearly NOT impressed…
FROM: Escape the City
TO: Graduate Fog
SUBJECT: Re: Friendly warning from Graduate Fog
Monday 10 January 2010, 17.06
We appreciate what you’re campaigning for (paid employment for graduates). However, we don’t appreciate being threatened (which is what your email seems to be doing!) – “I will be keeping an eye on your site in future.”
The thing is – you’re taking a position on a subject that is by no means a closed debate. There are plenty of valid reasons why unpaid internships and work experiences are a very good thing.
I myself benefited hugely from unpaid work when I was an undergrad and graduate. I’m currently working on a project for a community of start-up businesses to share office space with a shared resource pool of unemployed graduates. We will be providing valuable work experience for young people who otherwise would be doing nothing. Escape the City itself has taken people on for 4-week unpaid internships which have worked extremely well for both us and the individuals – and we found 2 of our interns jobs at the end of the process.
Unpaid work experience is one way into niche areas where established entry paths are less obvious. This is part of the Escape the City concept (do something different). We understand that it’s hard to find work that makes you tick and working for free is one of the ways to do this.
So I’m afraid we actually disagree with you here in principle on this matter. I wholly support the objective of helping graduates find meaningful paid work and am involved with a number of initiatives which are aimed at helping graduates find careers that are right for them.
Escape the City lists opportunities ranging from paid executive positions and full-time roles to unpaid volunteer opportunities, paid internships, unpaid internships, connections between people with business ideas, even positions where the new team member only receives equity. The only proviso is that these are opportunities for meaningful and fulfilling work.
Blur group are offering a work placement programme. It’s a scheme they wouldn’t be able to provide if they had to pay all the people on it. Therefore, in our eyes, it is a valid offering and one that we are happy to be listing on our site. We currently have a generously paid internship on our site from RLtec (a clean tech start-up) and we will continue to offer both types on Esc.
If people aren’t prepared to work for free they needn’t apply for the unpaid internships. There are plenty of people who are thrilled to have the opportunity to learn skills in a new environment where they wouldn’t have been able to get a paid position (due to lack of skills).
We are not a bad organisation and get a huge amount of emails from our members saying how happy they are with what we stand for, what we do, and how we do it. Blur took an unpaid intern from us last year who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to transition into digital marketing. If you were asking us to stop doing something that was genuinely wrong / unethical / immoral then of course we would do so – but that is not the case.
Glad you like what we do. Thank you. However, it’s not fair to send a one-sided message like you did on a subject where the right way of doing things is far from agreed. By all means stand up for what you believe in and campaign for paid internships – but you should think twice about threatening people just because they believe in another way.
Rob Symington – Co-Founder
Do Something Different!
Is your blood boiling? So was mine.
Clearly this email is immensely irritating for those of us who believe that the debate is in fact ‘closed’, as in the UK we have a little thing called the Minimum Wage Law. And one of my pet hates is hearing out-of-date ‘examples’ of people whose careers got off to a flying start after doing an internship — with no regard for their poorer peers — used as ‘proof’ that the current situation with internships isn’t the HUGE problem that we all know it is.
So at this point I decided I would in fact be blogging about this after all (Sorry guys!).
So it took all the strength I could muster to send this email back to them:
TO: Escape the City
FROM: Graduate Fog
SUBJECT: Re: re: Friendly warning from Graduate Fog
Monday 10 January 2010, 17.18
Sincere apologies if you felt I was threatening you – and thank you for taking the time to clarify your position on this.
Since when I have heard nothing back.
In the couple of days since this exchange, I’ve calmed down a little (although re-reading this email again sends my heart rate soaring every time).
I realise that the gentlemen at EscapeTheCity are probably not evil to the core — more likely, they are just really badly informed when it comes to the subject of internships.
And unfortunately they are not alone.
Haven’t we ALL heard these rotten, flawed arguments used again and again to ‘justify’ the continuation (and rise) of the corrosive unpaid internships culture? Usually, this drivel comes from those who have interned themselves (because they could afford to) several years ago, and found that for them it led to paid work fairly swiftly — and they haven’t looked back.
What the EscapeTheCity boys clearly don’t ‘get’ is how lucky they were to be able to afford to work for free AND that they didn’t have to do it for very long AND that they (probably) weren’t in as much debt as you lot are, when they graduated.
As for whether my email was threatening, I’ve re-read it several times and feel pretty confident I stayed on the right side of the line — and I think my firm tone was justified, given the seriousness of what EscapeTheCity are doing. I’m also confused that somehow I’M being portrayed as the bad guy for sending them a slightly mean email — even though they’re the ones who have been advertising for an unpaid worker (for the Blur Group and several others, I might add).
Happily, Graduate Fog’s friends at the interns rights groups have backed me up — issuing the following statements this morning.
From Intern Aware:
“Escape the City miss the point in talking about people who aren’t ‘prepared to work for free’. For most graduates, this isn’t a choice: they simply cannot afford to work without an income. While their intentions may be good, by only making valuable work experience available to graduates who can work without pay, Escape the City are increasing inequality of opportunity.”
From Interns Anonymous:
“We thought your email to EscapeTheCity was very polite! And they are wrong on several counts. The fact is that nowadays it is increasingly rare for unpaid internships to lead to jobs. In fact, they often replace what used to be entry level jobs. Graduates have the skills and deserve to be paid for the work that they do. We believe that unpaid work is illegal — and it is certainly unjust. It means the only people who get ahead are those that can afford to get ahead. However well-intentioned an internship or organisation may be – if the work is not paid, it entrenches inequality.”
This whole episode shows that there is a LOT more work to be done in convincing the pro-unpaid internships crowd that they urgently need to reassess their views. However much they think they are helping young people by offering (and promoting) these placements, they are in fact doing the opposite.
*Did I go too far?
Was my email ‘threatening’? What do you think of EscapeTheCity’s response to my challenge about them advertising unpaid internships? What more can we do to raise awareness about why their views are so out-of-touch?