“The UK Government is aiming to reverse the growing culture of unpaid internships” according to this report in The Guardian.

The article has spurred me on to share some personal feelings I have about work experience. Here’s a quick definition of what I am referring to as work experience or internship:

1. Unpaid
2. For an organisation of any type, public, private or charity
3. Where the primary motivation for work experience is to start a career in that chosen sector or discipline

An empty cup of tea

Work experience doesn't have to be all about making cups of tea. Image courtesy of http://bit.ly/hmU0mc

Much of the continued discussion around work experience is about whether or not participants should be paid, and the ongoing question of employer’s accountability. Are ‘workies’ seen as cheap labour to fulfil day-to-day administration tasks?

I have lots of personal experience of work experience, as employee and employer. Before I even began my journalism diploma, I had started to spend periods of work experience on local and regional newspapers. The advice I had from experienced journalists was that experience was everything, and qualifications a secondary concern. In fact, it was this advice that persuaded me not to go to university.

Whenever I read stories about new rules, regulations or guidance about work experience, my heart sinks. If you, as a college, school or university leaver, offer your time to a company, and they take you under their wing, it’s usually on the understanding of the three simple criteria above.

It is the responsibility of the student on work experience to ensure that they benefit from the experience and generate some contacts, without being taken advantage of and working for months, even years, for the same company, without renumeration.

I undertook lots of placements – some were successful and led to paid work, others were less useful and I quickly learnt how to nurture the former and wrap up the latter.

Of course, employers shouldn’t be taking advantage either. However, it’s a ruthless world out there and knowing when to draw the line is all part of the experience.

Here are some links to related issues and debates:

The difficulties of gaining work experience while claiming benefits

Media is a big user, and sometimes abuser of work experience. Here’s the debate at journalism.co.uk

This is a big subject and I’ve only scratched the surface with a personal opinion. But tell me your views: have you experienced work experience? Do you offer it as a company?