No one likes to work for free, that is a given, and many (smart) people refuse to do it. Annoyingly though, for a lot of graduate jobs there’s this catch-22 situation: you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. Some proper arsehole came up with this in order to get free work from desperate graduates who are prepared to do anything short of sucking dick for a job.
I parted with invisible government money that’ll keep me forever in debt to the tune of £20,000 and studied for a degree in Illustration. I left with an average degree from a slightly above average university in a completely and utterly unemployable subject.
What 18 year old Carla failed to appreciate when she signed up to study for the dream job, was that the dream job is self-employed and permanent jobs in illustration are incredibly few and far between. At 22, I was torn from the safe, university party bubble and sent back home to live my parents where I began the denial phase and applied for literally over 300 design-related jobs. (It would be another two years before I accepted that design isn’t for me.)
Whilst avoiding self-employment like the plague and determinedly searching for a permanent role in my field, I hit the Inexperience Wall. You can’t go over it, can’t go under it. Can’t even go through the bastard thing, you have to sit and beg in front of it. And this is what brought me to my internship.
My ‘internship’, if you can call it that, was genuinely one of the worst times of my whole life.
It’s sad when I think how excited I was before I started. This was my big break! Every day, heading off into the big bad city, to a swanky little road off Carnaby street where all the cool kids worked.
I was taken in (like a stray cat) to fulfil the role of graphic design intern, working specifically on design material for events surrounding Britain and Ireland’s Next Top Model. Now don’t get me wrong, I had no allusion that I would be designing anything truly exciting; I knew (or so I thought) that I’d be left to lay out parking instruction leaflets and fill in the newsletter on InDesign.
But I did expect to be doing something that involved being creative. Wrong.
I can safely say that during my four weeks there I didn’t do a single thing that I couldn’t have done had I never studied art in my life. They could have got any person off the street to do the kind of shit they had me do.
Not just averagely humiliating things you’d expect from working for free, like being the tea bitch and answering the phone, but also things like walking the boss’s stupid beagle and inevitably picking up its shit. It was my job to write down what everyone wanted for lunch and head to M&S to pick it all up. I was responsible for taking out the rubbish and making sure the fruit bowl was always stocked. The stairs weren’t going to hoover themselves, any more than the front door, three floors below, would swing itself open when the doorbell rang.
I was dying to scream, “I have skills, I’m here for free, UTILISE ME!!!”
But what was even more upsetting than being sent on endless bitch errands, was the attitude in which they did it. I have never been made to feel more uncomfortable in my life (and as you all know, I’ve been in some pretty uncomfortable situations).
The office consisted of three other women, plus me, and we all worked on one small bank of desks in the middle of a pretty small room.
They would go out of their way to not include me in conversations. For example:
Brunette: Oh my God, did you ladies see the X factor last night?
Redhead: Oh my God, yesss, I love that Aidan guy, he’s so dreamy!
Super redhead: Oh my God, yes, no, yes I love Matt Cardle more though!
Me: I watch the X Factor!
Cue the most intense silence you have ever heard, interrupted only by sudden, furious typing, loud sighing and picking up pretend phone calls.
I could go on all day with examples of this behaviour, but you wouldn’t believe me if I did. Suffice to say, the effort they took to make me feel awkward was impressive. I don’t know how they even had the cheek to send me on the bitch jobs when they’d been so needlessly brutal to me all day so far.
Anyway, hate to go emo on you all, but the more they treated me like shit the less able I was to stand up for myself. Looking back on it now I cannot believe I stuck it out for the full four weeks. The longer it went on the more determined I became to not quit and to at least get something out of all this shit, which would be a reference for my CV and future job applications.
But, at the beginning of the third week, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I psyched up for ten minutes and asked Brunette the question: “is something wrong Brunette? I feel like there’s an awful atmosphere in here…”. I got her usual sneer, as though I’d just had a bowel movement in her lunch box, and after a long pause she said, “yes actually, we’re disappointed that you show no initiative.”
Now let me just say, when I first started there I was eager to the point of being a complete slut for work. I don’t care to admit how excited I was for this month of free work, it’s pathetic. But I’m not a magician, for fuck’s sake. I can’t produce work out of absolutely nothing at all, I didn’t even have my own chair let alone my own computer, how on earth could I be expected to ‘show initiative’ under these conditions?!
“Interesting,” I said. “How so?”
And she said, without a trace of embarrassment: “well, the toilets need cleaning and you’ve not cleaned them.”
I have never been so taken aback. She actually wanted me to clean their toilets, for free, under the guise of graphic design work experience. She was disappointed that I hadn’t, of my own accord, raced into the bathroom with a sponge and disinfected their skiddy bowls. Needless to say, I was completely speechless. Eventually she just stood up and said, “can you take these bins out?” and swiftly left the office, like an angry old bat.
Let me just say too, I’ve had many cleaning jobs. No one is ‘above’ cleaning offices- or in my case, Catholic school carpets- for money, but not for free.
After that, probably due to my UNACCEPTABLE OUTBURST (asking a question). I was left to clear out the back room and then comb the designer, human hair runway dresses, which is exactly what it sounds like.
When I completed/escaped this hellish four weeks I’d gained absolutely no work experience and had been emotionally set back a decade. I bullshitted how enlightening it’d been for the CV and just prayed no prospective employers would ring them for a reference only to find out I make a crappy cup of tea.
The story had a happy ending (two years later) but I would urge graduates, or anyone seeing ‘work experience’, to choose carefully, and not put up with being treated like a complete mug. If you’re trading your time for work then make sure it’s on your terms and you’re getting exactly what you want out of it, otherwise it’s just not worth it.
Plus, you may get an inexplicable hatred for beagle puppies, and it’s not really their fault their owners are complete wankers.