Unpaid Internships: Catch 22 or Catch Me If You Can?

Posted on 16 September 2011 Written by

“The best things in life are free.” That may be the tune employers are singing, but unpaid internships are fast becoming a necessity for arts graduates. The phrase “vicious circle” is never more appropriate than when it comes to the wrath of job-seeking. No experience so no job, no job so no experience: a catch 22. However, the opportunity of an internship, paid or otherwise, can be a sure-fire way to secure a job in the arts sector: some organisations even consider hands-on experience more worthy than a graduate’s scroll. It sounds simple, but is it feasible or sustainable for young people to work unpaid to try to secure a future career?

The Guardian recently reported that graduate unemployment was the highest it has been for almost 17 years, with nearly one in 11 graduates unemployed after university, as noted by the Higher Education Careers Service poll (November 2010). This is not solely a case of sensationalising and scaremongering on the part of the press: we know the arts jobs market is undernourished. It is becoming increasingly clear that arts graduates are now deprived of the opportunities they spent three years (or more) working towards. With job applicants discovering an increasingly competitive environment, it is now imperative to start early to gain relevant experience. Having a clear idea of a career path is helpful but not vital in order to pursue said experience without pigeon-holing aspirations into one area. In a recent live internship debate on (September 2011), it was insinuated that a less qualified individual with more experience would perhaps fare better than a candidate with an “academic” degree. Controversial? Of course. Yet the comment was met with agreement. Internships are widely recognised as an ideal way for young people to gain entry into the world of work but perhaps they are now becoming the only method of entry into the arts.

Networking can be an invaluable tool for young people chasing work in the arts industry. In addition to a degree, work experience and a snazzy CV, a name that is well-known and trusted will score even more points, making internships with prospective organisations vital. Sarah O’Hanlon is the Head of Marketing and Membership Support Services at the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing. She began as an intern, and reveals that “many of those at the ISTD have experienced internships themselves and appreciate how much impact it can have, so we are keen to give back and let other young people learn”. In marketing, O’Hanlon is able to “offer a good exposure to the wider arts industry” as the department “needs to keep tabs on what everyone else is doing, both within the ISTD and within the industry, so that can often help to inform and enrich intern experience.”

A good knowledge of the arts industry, what’s on and who’s involved with what projects, is an eye-opening and beneficial way of illustrating passion for the sector to a potential employer, informing and enabling placements and future careers. For those unable to secure an internship, social networking sites such as Twitter and LinkedIn can fill this void if they are used as a communication tool for skills to be recognised by potential employers. A constant social media presence – including a blog – will demonstrate not only a passion for the industry, but also self-discipline and the dedication to cultivating a career. Being proactive is perhaps one of the main attributes of a successful candidate, reaching out for experience and skills through self-motivation and visibility, and thereby increasing chances of securing placements.

Approaching an organisation may be nerve-wracking, but many welcome the opportunity to inform young people. Southend Theatres Ltd is an arts organisation that champions internships. Emily Malcolm, Community and Education Manager, comments that “the theatre industry is hard to get into without any experience and an internship gives young people the first experience they need”. Malcolm ensures her interns gain as a much relevant experience as possible: they “pick up a lot from working with our professional staff…(experience) a real variety in their work and get to meet a lot of people”. Malcolm spent many years volunteering for various companies to gain experience herself, and identifies with the harsh reality that there are no shortcuts into the field. However, proof is most certainly in the pudding, with Southend Theatres Ltd employing casual workers who began as interns in front of house, box office and technical positions, proving how vital an internship can be in getting a foot in the door.

Employers sometimes favour internships as a way to train potential employees before full-time employment. This usually occurs in the latter stages of an internship, but the experience gained is arguably one of the best CV sellers around. O’Hanlon explains the benefits of having an intern in the team: “it can also be really refreshing to have an ‘outsider’ with new ideas who can give a different perspective” and introduce another generation into the system. Additionally, O’Hanlon provides the reassurance that is needed: “if someone is qualified for the position it can work out like a trial period and when they start as a paid member of staff you already know that they’re great for the job”. Demonstrating a readiness to work unpaid proves a passion for the job, and learning on-the-job will then be valued all the more.

However, the inescapable reality is that many young people simply cannot afford to work unpaid. Many organisations in the arts (and beyond) pay travel expenses, but for many part-time interns, finding paid work out of intern hours is the only answer. The Guardian featured an article by Charlotte Frenchman in May 2011 outlining her struggles job-seeking until she finally obtained her dream job as a marketing officer. Although not the case for every graduate, Frenchman’s perseverance in maintaining a part-time job to enable her to volunteer and gain experience paid off. It is an inspirational story that gives hope to those with real motivation to succeed, with Frenchman testifying that “doing my unpaid work alongside working part-time helped me to see a light at the end of the tunnel and feel I was really getting somewhere… I was told several times that without the unpaid work, I wouldn’t have been selected for interviews.” Frenchman’s shrewd advice is to “look at charities for great experience, as working for free feels much better if it’s for a good cause”. Aware of the difficulties of unpaid work, she finishes, “it’s a shame that working for free has become so necessary… but for lots of people it’s the only way to get this coveted ‘experience’ that so many employers want”. Former TheatreFix intern Kate Richards is similarly looking to combine part-time internships with work to fund herself through her placements. Richards argues that “the fact that unpaid internships have become the norm among those looking to work in the arts is something that really frustrates me… I haven’t been able to undertake much other unpaid work… it just hasn’t been sustainable.” With such inevitable circumstances, some prospective interns sadly have to reconsider their options, requiring compromise in order to gain as much as possible. Richards’ advice is simple: “Don’t let rejection get you down… hundreds of people apply every day, for every unpaid position going. It’s tough”.

Richards further maintains that it is important for the intern to be “given the opportunity to properly engage with and take part within the workplace” rather than given menial tasks which are of no benefit. It has been widely noted in the past that some organisations may take on interns simply to fill administration-based roles – in short, to be a dogsbody. Certainly, administration enters into each and every role within a company yet with the time and energy an intern invests in their placement, it is vital they experience something long-lasting and valuable while working on tasks and projects. For the intern to succeed, a willingness to commit fully to goals is a must. Working unpaid is undoubtedly an unfortunate and often difficult circumstance but one that, it seems, must be endured to even attempt to get a finger in the career pie.
[Editor's note: AYT would like to remind its readers that any internship which gives you sole responsibility for any specific tasks or defines your working hours rigidly may be contravening minimum wage legislation, and may be illegal. Go out and get the best experience you can - and make the most of it! - but please make sure you're not being exploited.]

Successful interns such as Frenchman and Richards demonstrate that an unpaid internship can greatly benefit the journey towards a career in the arts industry. The talent and dedication of interns, paid or otherwise, is unquestionable, and young people must be championed for their hard work and passion. This must pay off financially one day, but for many (including Frenchman and Richards), enthusiasm overrides the immediate importance of getting paid to work in the sector they love. Some placements have been known to be exploitative and take more than they give back to their volunteers, yet internships are now so common, it does not seem too much to hope that young people will fairly and uniformly receive the opportunities they deserve. We are progressing towards this state but, undoubtedly for those who have and will undertake an unpaid internship, the knowledge and experience gained promises much greater things from having learnt so much by working for nothing.

For more information on finding and applying for internships, please see AYT’s List of Theatre Internships.

Image credit: TheatreFix

6 Comments For This Post

  1. Holly Parker Says:

    The debate rages on!

    This is an issue that I feel ridiculously strongly about. I think there should be a clear definition between volunteering and an internship. Personally, I could not (financially or in principal) work for free by interning. I do however, and have done for almost three years now, volunteered on an expenses-paid basis.

    If I’m earning enough money to pay my rent, bills, food etc then I am happy to give up any free time I have to arts organisations. I’ll be honest, more out of love rather than hoping to rack up CV points. But thats my free time that I’m choosing to spend how I want.

    If I was working full time in an unpaid position – what does that say about how I value my own time, and what I have to offer? What does it say about my employer, who obviously values my input as so little, it has literally no worth?

    I personally think it’s a slippery slope. And no matter what anyone says, unpaid internships are elitist. Am I bitter because there’s no way I could afford to work for free? Probably. Am I hypocritical because I do occasionally volunteer my spare time for free? Perhaps a little. Do I think internships are fantastic experience? Of course.

    But with two gap years before starting Uni and a wealth of (paid and unpaid) experiences during my time at University… I’m fairly confident I can find a way into the arts industry that doesn’t involve an unpaid internship.

  2. Jessica Wilson Says:

    Hi Holly,

    Thanks for your response, it’s really insightful.

    I thoroughly agree that in an ideal world it is great if volunteers/interns are able to claim expenses; after all, they’re investing so much into deciding their future career! I fully appreciate that often, personal circumstances prevent people from dedicating their time and resources fully, simply because it is not sustainable (as mentioned within the article). However, I feel the point I am trying to make is that, as you say, to rack up CV points may require a certain amount of compromise, working and volunteering part time.

    Despite this, what you are doing sounds great – being involved with arts organisations on perhaps a more casual basis could be the answer to many people’s problems: putting paid work first until they can commit to more. The circumstances are very unfortunate, but what speaks louder to me personally is the amount of dedication young people have to pursue a love and consequently a career. I feel to dismiss unpaid work as worthless undermines the obvious passion and motivation that was the catalyst.

    Best of luck with your studies, it sounds as though you will be very successful.


  3. Holly Parker Says:


    It’d be interesting actually to see how likely young arts professionals are to take unpaid internships at varying stages of their career? I think if you’ve never been paid for your work in the arts, I reckon you’d probably be more likely to work unpaid. I wonder how that changes as you begin to get jobs (even if it’s freelance) that pay. I think that first payment you get really changes your perspective – I know it did mine! No joke, I was very close to not cashing my first arts cheque as I wanted to frame it!

    What you said really struck a chord – we’re all doing this for love. No one in their right mind would enter this industry half heartedly, we choose it because we want a job or a profession that doesn’t fill us with dread! And as long as you can fund yourself (through whatever means), then why not do that for free? I think I am just more bitter than I ever thought I would be!

    I guess for me, the option of an unpaid internship isn’t feasible (and because of that, I would feel uncomfortable if I were ever to offer a young person an unpaid internship) but they definitely have their place in the industry, and undoubtedly lead to wonderful things!


  4. Sarah Says:

    I recommend that arts students use their time wisely whilst at university/college – if you’ve got to work for free then do it whilst your loan is coming in and you’ve got the free time. Get involved with student societies; demonstrate your passions and build your transferable skills.

    I worked part-time on a casual basis at a local gallery whilst I was studying (I found that most of the local authority institutions pay their casuals) so I was getting paid (the most crucial thing as my parents couldn’t support me), I was getting experience and it was really flexible so I could take on additional hours in the holidays and less during exams.

    I wouldn’t do an unpaid internship as I don’t have the means but it’s worked out well for friends that can afford it. My only observation is that the more renowned institutions with more kudos don’t pay you and you tend to find yourself working as part of a big team whereas smaller places value you more and give you more responsibility in all areas – it depends what you want to get out of the industry I suppose.

  5. George Fenwick Says:


    Nowhere in your article do you mention that, unless a particular arts organisation is a registered charity, then employing unpaid “interns” is ILLEGAL. There’s a very good reason for this: Since funding has become tighter, many arts organisations are taking the easy route of exploiting those who wish to enter the industry. While your editor has quite rightly pointed this out, there’s no “may be” involved. If organisations in any sector exploit employees, and do not fall within very strict criteria, then they may be prosecuted under Minimum Wage Legislation.
    I personally have no problem with people entering the workplace on short “work experience” placements, but this whole culture of internships is derogatory to those of us who work towards experience and formal training over the years, only to find jobs being done by what amounts to slave labour.

  6. Jessica Wilson Says:

    Hi everyone,

    Thanks so much for your comments, it’s great to get feedback.

    Holly – I totally agree. I work as a Student Ambassador at university alongside interning, and having an income is definitely a boost! I too would have struggled to continue without this. I think the value of unpaid work increases due to the fact young people are so willing to get a foot in the door of the sector this way, and move onwards and upwards to find a career in the sector they love. Being involved recently with an arts organisation made me aware of the sheer hard work that goes into any career, but I’m so glad I am able to pursue a love that I can then form a career from.

    Sarah – Thanks for your points; grasping opportunities is something I render as vital in attaining success, rather than waiting for them to drop from the sky. For young people, it is imperative they can find a compromise within their own circumstances that will enable them to fulfil their aspirations, and as you rightly say, the ideal time for this is whilst studying to gain more before they graduate.

    George – It’s great to get an alternative insight, expecially that of such technicalities. I think for a lot of young people, without this knowledge their decisions may be more liberal than they would be with this information made known to them. From experience, the responsibilities of an arts intern are relatively minor in terms of operations as a whole, with more emphasis placed on learning relevant skills that will enable them to approach a job advert with more confidence and aptitude, rather than with the prerogative to deny full-time, paid employees work.

    Thanks again, it’s so beneficial to hear other perspectives.

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