Work Experience

When is an Opportunity not an Opportunity?

When you’re walking across London in bone-chilling, bra-soaking, sideways rain to fix someone else’s problem. When you’re not learning anything (apart from how to catch pneumonia) and you’re not getting paid.

I’m not bitter. No really, I’m quite honestly not.

That said, it’s true that in the past I have taken on the role of the appreciative, ever nodding dogsbody on a few too many occasions for very little or no financial compensation. The general idea behind offering to do these things, at the time, was to learn something new, to make contacts, and to broaden my experience of theatre in its various forms.

But when does an ‘internship’ or ‘work experience opportunity’ stop being useful to the person making the cups of tea, picking up other people’s over-the-counter drugs, and scooping poop for the director’s dog, and start being a genuine opportunity for free manual labour on the part of the employer?

Sometimes when I discuss what I have been up to with certain ‘non-theatre’ friends and family, they are shocked and occasionally saddened. It’s often difficult to shake the feeling that there are some middle-level ‘theatre success story’ types who have reached where they wanted to be by stomping ever so confidently, bedecked in ridiculous vintage couture, on the heads of those grateful interns following closely behind.

Let me try to reassure those troubled friends, and myself. True, many theatre companies in the UK rely on a multitude of unpaid enthusiasts, but, sometimes, that’s just great. In these situations, everyone is working towards the same goal for the simple reason that they feel genuinely passionate about whatever bit of tut is being put on the stage. And that’s fine, so long as you have the savings/pocket money/hassle-free, fast approval, payday loan to allow you to put food on the table.

In addition, I have done some seriously useful work experience jobs. And when I say useful, I really do mean useful to me. I was given what I still perceive to be a genuine opportunity, based on very little experience on my part, by an opera company who treated me much like a paid employee. In this way, yes, I was taken advantage of, but I also learnt how to do the job, on the job.

Of course, we can never know just which ‘unpaid opportunity’ (as many of the familiar job sites advertise them) may lead to something really pivotal in the formation of a successful career, but with just a little bit of hindsight I think it becomes painfully clear exactly which of them didn’t.

I admit that this post doesn’t aim to plumb the depths of the unpaid internship ‘situation’, which has become a significant issue throughout the arts sector. It’s been debated at large across most of the usual reputable news channels. All I might offer is my own viewpoint, and I suppose that viewpoint is somewhat conflicted.

Without unpaid work experience placements I wouldn’t have evolved, Pokémon-style, into the Charmeleon that I am now. But, from where I am now, I can appreciate how frustrating it is when a company chooses a clueless unpaid intern over employing a qualified stage manager, for example.

What I would say with some conviction is that it is extremely important to learn when you really have to say “no, I will absolutely not pay my own travel costs to come and work for you shovelling shit on a Sunday for absolutely no monetary compensation and little more than a half-hearted nod by way of a thank you”.

We must try to make a reasonable assessment of what our time is worth. But, as long as people like past-me keep agreeing to the bonds of the unpaid ‘opportunity’, companies will keep relying on them to survive.

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7 thoughts on “When is an Opportunity not an Opportunity?

  1. It’s a common problem across the arts, I wrote a similar post on my own blog not too long ago about young singers and how we sacrifice fees for exposure or performance-opportunities. As you say, as long as it adds to your experience and bag of tricks (or in our case maybe repertoire), it is worth it, but it’s not worth it if all you are going for is a one-in-a-million chance of being ‘discovered’ and offered a significant step up the ladder. This isn’t the Discworld and those chances don’t happen 99 times out of 100… More’s the pity.

    • I very much enjoyed your blog, Jan! Perhaps a bit of unconscious inspiration for a backstage take on a similar situation! Of course, we all jumped into the same unreliable, slightly leaking, overcrowded boat the day we sold our souls to the devil (opera).

  2. Tom Loake says:

    I think one of the bigger crimes in this situation isn’t really the organisation or the interns fault but the attitudes of the individuals responsible for the interns. Yeh I’ve pushed a broom, made coffee, babysat for peoples kids (mid-event/show) but the people I did it for didn’t just give me opportunities – they actively promoted me in their relevant communities. They found me more opportunities, gave me glowing references and did damage control when I messed up. And when I finally got an arts job? They’ve carried on supporting me and I still support them, just the dynamic changed a bit. Maybe there’s a disconnect between expectations of the individuals here…

    • I think that’s a very good point, Tom, and I’m glad to hear that, like me, you have had some extremely positive experiences! It’s important to remember that some, if not most internships and work experience placements are a win-win situation for both employer and employee. In the best situations, what the organisation gains in workforce and new ideas, the individual gains in real-life mentoring, invaluable industry contacts, and what might have been called at one point an ‘apprenticeship’. But, as you said, not all of those who promote themselves as offering ‘internships’ really do, or are really prepared to give up the time and resources required to hold up their end of the bargain.

  3. Claire says:

    I am so glad the rules on this have been officially made a lot stricter. Internships have to be paid at minimum wage now if you aren’t supernumary. If the show can’t go on without you then you should be being paid at least NMW. If you are truly on ‘work experience’ you should be shadowing and learning and the extra work they get from you is what is given back in time spent mentoring and teaching you. I know from experience that there are some (nameless) companies who will get you in as basically slave unpaid labour and rely on you to be an integral part of the production… because they haven’t done a proper business plan and can’t finance what they are trying to do…

  4. Rosie says:

    The only negative thing about the fantastic 6-month internship I did in arts admin was having to get through it with no income, after the jobcentre wrongly told me I wasn’t entitled to job seekers allowance while I was doing the placement. Following a long drawn-out complaints process I finally got the jobcentre to admit their mistake and received a back payment from them. The need to do unpaid work experience is limiting access to a career in the arts to those from a wealthy background with family support, and I believe the government has a duty to do something about that. Thankfully the Arts Council are beginning to recognise this (http://bit.ly/Qgt3J4). The internship I did helped me not only to get my first job, but will also (hopefully) have helped me to have a life-long career in the arts. That means more taxes paid by me, and less unemployment benefits paid to me – lucky government!

  5. Loved the reference to evolving there at the end. It’s difficult process jumping from the unpaid to paid in the theatre world and it seems like every year the gap continues to widen some. I say good for you for continuing to pursue it out of love for the art. That’s all that matter in the end.

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