Pushing For Pay - How the media world is fighting back against unpaid placements for students

by - Sunday, June 15, 2014

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Every July, 370 different media based courses in the UK spit out hoards of graduates, all clutching hard-gotten pieces of paper that boast the results of three years of identikit studies. They all dream of the same thing: to be a writer, a TV presenter, the next big thing in Radio. Whilst their ambitions are admirable and even well informed considering their qualifications, many will find themselves making little impact in an interview. That is unless they support their studies with some serious real-world credentials, the skills you simply cannot learn in a classroom.

Luckily for me and my Media, Humanities and Music coursemates at Huddersfield Uni, we’re set to graduate this summer from a uni with a strong employment record, bolstered by industry contacts we have made whilst completing our coursework and a firm grounding in theory that will hopefully mean we can prove ourselves to be perfect employees. However, with a recent report from the High Fliers society stating that over 50% of employers wouldn't give a job to a graduate without experience, it is simply no longer standard practice to swap the mortar board directly for a desk job. Whilst most students aim to complement their studies with media placements during their holidays, competition for places forces many to take time off from their studies to experience work with no financial recompense.

The argument about unpaid placements isn’t new, but it is one that has always been shrugged off with the same guidelines – if you’re doing a job that a staff member would be employed to do, you should get paid. If you’re handing out the post, not so much. I’ve done my fair share of crappy tea making and boring transcription, but when it’s for a massive, ‘dream job one day’ worthy publication, it can often be difficult to know when to say no. In November 2013, HM Revenue & Customs announced it would be looking to protect students by cracking down on unpaid internships, targeting 200 employers who advertise for free labour. Whilst this decision seemed to be the start of a turning point, it still remains to be seen whether it will change such a deeply ingrained tradition of exploitation.

With research from YouthSight claiming that the average University experience costs £16,804 a year, forking out daily travel expenses to the city for six months with no promise of a follow up job can be hard to stomach, particularly if it yields no further insight into the industry than what flavour syrup the editor likes in their latte. Students often end up working extra part time jobs to fund their placement, and are then unable to give their all to other commitments, least alone their degree course. It’s a big juggling act: we want to show employers that we’re ready for the industry by studying it for three years, but somehow we need to prove it practically too. Can we have another 12 hours in our day please?
One would suggest that this is an issue Universities themselves should seek to monitor, and indeed many of the country’s leading institutions are now refusing to advertise schemes that recruit unpaid interns. This year, University College London launched a Santander sponsored scheme which sees 90 students gaining experience in a range of businesses over the summer, earning £250 per week. Introducing placement years into degree programmes is also a key initiative, allowing undergraduates to seek yearly positions rather than monthly ones, allowing more scope for skill development, and ultimately, pay. It’s a system that works well for our University’s Creative Arts department and may be rolled out further within the University if proven to be viable.
On a national level, the growth of the Bauer-Media-meets-O2 enterprise GoThinkBig, who offer paid work at many of the country’s leading titles including Kiss FM, Kerrang and Grazia has also helped and is something I directly benefitted from in my first year, when I undertook a placement at Q Magazine. Launched as a direct reaction to youth unemployment statistics, GoThinkBig support the development of young people aged between 16 and 24 looking to get their foot on the media ladder.

‘We’ve only been in business for just over a year, but we have already provided 10,000 career related opportunities’ explains Tokunbo Ajas-Oluwa, head of GoThinkBig. ‘We’ve become a one-stop digital hub that bundles together insight, advice and practical opportunities to enable young people to make informed decisions about their career aspirations. Work experience and internships are superb because they provide the individual with a reality check of what awaits them within the working world. However if a placement doesn’t cover expenses, then only a minority of young people can afford to take advantage of such a rich opportunity.’

BBC Radio 1 are also pioneering a new ‘Take It On’ scheme, which sees students of any age welcomed to apply for two months at a time on pay rates of £250 a week, with leave days included. Whilst I wasn’t quite clued up enough on the yoof’s listening habits to claim the placement myself,  it was a scheme that greatly benefitted Bournemouth University Undergraduate Pete Simmons, who was able to take time off his Broadcast Journalism degree to put his academic skills into practice.

‘When I arrived I was thrown straight in; I got to write scripts, edit video content, call
listeners and record pieces to put on air,’ Pete explains. ‘Having kept in contact with everyone I met, the Head of Recruitment let me stay on as a Team Assistant. ‘Whenever I meet potential employers and mention my time at Radio 1 they instantly take notice and respect me. Had I not been paid, I couldn’t have taken the opportunity- the cost of staying somewhere and living would have been impossible to keep up with.’

With the HMRC crackdown hopefully meaning a more secure future for interns, success stories like Pete’s might become more commonplace. Until then, students are forced to be more enterprising with their time if they hope to climb the career ladder with their degree classification intact.

Ways To Get The Most Out Of A Media Placement

Say yes: Don’t let people take the piss, obviously, but be willing to help out in any way possible. Sure, it may mean organising archives for three hours, but by completely tasks quickly and accurately with a smile on your face, it shows that you are willing to pitch in on the less glamorous tasks.

Speak to people: It sounds obvious, but don’t just meekly sit and do the assigned tasks – ask people questions! It’s the easiest way to show that you are interested in the company and learn what it takes to get a foot in the door. Volunteering to hand the post out in the morning is a brilliant way to break the ice with as many workers as possible. Speak to the other work experience students too – who knows where they might end up in the future?

Use downtime to pitch ideas: At a busy magazine or radio station, journalists won’t necessarily be plying you with tasks; they’ll be too busy themselves. Use this time to pitch story ideas and concepts to the relevant editor – you never know; they might end up getting published! (see my previous blog about my work experience at NME!)

Dress the part: For the most part, magazine placements only require casual clothes, but by planning presentable (but comfortable) outfits, you will instantly feel more ready to impress.

Do your research: Before you start your placement, make sure you are familiar with their output, or even follow some of their writers/contributors on Twitter. You’ll be much more aware of how the different parts of the company come together and will be able to ask much more informed and intelligent questions.

Maximise Your Time In The City: Lots of big media placements are in big cities like London or Manchester, so take advantage of opportunities there are to network in your new fast paced surroundings. Organise a post-work meet up with an old contact you have only ever spoken to on the phone, even go on interviews for other placements or blog about your experience (keep it professional, obviously). As the saying goes, it’s all good stuff for the cv.

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