Unpaid internships: why employers need to DIY

When it comes to internships there are strong arguments on both sides. This post will only delve into one side of the debate, so fans of balance, look away.

I’m not alone in disagreeing with unpaid graduate internships. I believe them to be reserved for university students who are looking to get a taste of their chosen industry and build up their CV while they’re financially supported elsewhere.

When it comes to graduates, the horror stories of internships seem to have worsened over recent years. Take this story, for example, of an illustrator’s first internship out of university.

If only it ended there. Graduates, beware – a new level has been reached. A friend recently told me story about one of her professional heroes who asked her to intern for an internship. We’ll call her The Editor.
A well-known, respected figure in a competitive industry and with an enviable CV, The Editor took a leap into entrepreneurship and needed an intern to help with a new start-up business.

She wanted to intern several people over the space of two months before deciding on one lucky mug to carry on with internship for four months with no solid job prospects at the end. She offered only travel and lunch expenses – her clever plan was to end up with the smartest of the bunch and all of the profit.

Realistically, anyone with a backbone will have told her to jog on, and of the remaining candidates it’s fair to say the more capable ones will have found a job elsewhere. The Editor will inevitably be left with some spineless, mildly talented sod who can’t get any better offer than to work for free for months on end. In other words, not exactly the perfect candidate to help you start a new business venture.

Stories like this prove (to me at least) that unpaid graduate internships need to cease existing. Play the game unfairly and you’ll attract the wrong people, set a bad example, and release people back into the wild having perpetuated the myth that free labour is acceptable. If you can’t pay someone to help, do it yourself.


  1. Totally agree with not abusing people but what about all those still at college / uni who need a placement as part of their course?

    We constantly have work placements coming through our office, have taken on two of them and provided at least five others with direct contacts for jobs

  2. Hello Vue - I think that distinction is there in the blog post. A placement whilst someone is at college is different, it's part of their education and should be treated as such. Really these are like the old term 'work experience'.

    Post grad, there's really no such thing as a placement - just 'free labour'.

  3. I once was interviewed for a full time job as a copywriter at a big ad agency, owned by Interpublic. They flew me over to their offices and we had the supposed interview. The next day they phone me up and ask me if I would be interested in working for them as an intern for €400 a month.

    I was laughing hard as I hung up on that stupid HR bitch.

  4. One of the worst parts of unpaid internships is the amount of discrimination they unwittingly cause.

    Anybody already living in London can afford to stay with their parents and dip their toe in the unpaid placement market to see if they fancy being a creative. However, people from outside of London or people from lower-income families simply can't do that. It's a major commitment for these people to even try getting into the industry.

    Cue less diversity and more middle-class Londoners in creative departments.

  5. Agreed M&D, it's a real problem for the ad industry.

  6. Phew, we're on the right side of things..! :)

  7. I always tend to get into discussions with people over this subject and I'm not scared of standing my ground when it comes to naming and shaming the companies who do this.
    I just read that story you used as an example and let me tell you something, I'm sure the girl is super talented and deserved a really good internship but that was just ridiculous. I don't understand why she kept going the full four weeks when I'm guessing the first week she was aware she was going to be doing all those sorts of things for the rest of the month. I know the feeling she was describing but I have too much love for myself and luckily parents that could support me a little bit longer if I decided to storm off right after I found out I had to be 'hoovering the stairs'. F* that! Also I worked part time for nearly 3 years(also while I was at uni) and didn't leave until I signed the contract for my first job which was probably 1 month after interning there and being paid.
    I guess you can call it luck but you can also call it standing your ground and having a bit of love for yourself.