The Battle of Being a Full-time Unpaid Intern in one of the Most Expensive Cities in the World

30 Dec 2017 | Calling for a fair share | by Joanna Veeremaa

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. Once the knowledge hits us, we can claim ourselves lucky. But before it happens, we must work hard and often make sacrifices to gain knowledge and experience. These placements and internships have increasingly become an established stepping-stone to employment for students and graduates starting their careers.

The statistic reveals that hiring rates for those who had chosen to complete an unpaid internship (37%) were almost the same for those who had not completed any internship at all (35%). Students who had any history of a paid internship, on the other hand, were far more likely (63%) to secure employment.

At the end of October, Damian Hinds, the UK’s employment minister, confirmed that the Government is reviewing unpaid internships. The reason behind this is that young people from poorer backgrounds cannot afford living costs and are therefore put off applying for internships. Internships can be a crucial learning experience and one of the big barriers to getting a job is not having had employment experience. Unfortunately, the legislation in the UK has been blocked and so it looks like unpaid internships will continue there.

Mirjam is a London-based 23-year old fresh graduate of Birmingham City University. In 2012 she decided to blow out the cobwebs and fly over from snowy Estonia to the lively, yet rainy UK. She started her Bachelor’s studies in Fashion Design.

They say life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it. We must wonder what is the unpaid life like for a young female student in one of the world’s most expensive cities where for example accommodation for the average Londoner – calculated as a total of housing and office rental costs – comes to a massive £80,700 (€91,438) a year. And the legend believes that London is the 12th most expensive for coffee. With an internship exhausting as below… coffee is a must.

What was the purpose of your internship? 

My internship position initially covered the role of assisting the designers of the luxury fashion house with any tasks needed. I started this position a few months after graduating university. After settling into the environment eventually it turned out that a different department needed more help than the one where I applied to, therefore I accepted to change my initial department for my internship position as it was important for me to work where I am most useful and where I can learn the most and get the strongest experience. Therefore I think my internship was not the most traditional one where you gain experience in the area you sign up for. I changed from apparel to accessories, which was quite a new field to me.

How and why did it all start? 

Reading the requirements for jobs such as for example “assistant designer” that would be the first position after university I realised that these jobs require almost always at least 2 years of experience, and all the replies from potential jobs confirmed that. To have such experience in your portfolio is almost impossible when you have just recently finished your studies. So it seemed more likely that I’d have success with an internship position. There followed the presentation of my portfolio, then an interview, which led to an unpaid internship position.

For me, seeking and accepting an internship position such as I did was purely to gain a step forward in my career and for ensuring that after graduating university I would straight away continue in the field that I have been training for as it is easy to get trapped in the place where earning money to pay your rent and bills is on the way to finding a job that is helping to fulfill your potential and offers challenges as a job. As I was studying fashion design I was following (and still am) a path where too many professionals in the field are trained and not as many needed and unpaid interns are taken on en masse by companies – the desperation to get a position is so big that the employers have actually no need to even offer a basic salary for starting positions anymore.

Therefore I was trapped in the system and decided to gain my experience the only way it was offered to me.

Being able to prove to future employers that you have more than only education, an unpaid internship (as there is nearly none that are paid) seemed almost the only way forward.

The purpose of the internship position itself that the company “hired” for was created for various reasons. In this particular company it seemed that they were not confident in hiring people for junior positions so taking on interns was a good chance to see if potential employees might be suitable. But often such internships in fashion houses are just used as free labour for easy tasks for companies. Therefore, I guess I was lucky.

Were you signed as an intern? 

No – in fact I think what I was doing was not fully legal. I did fill in a few details about myself but that was it. The lines between “volunteering” and “working” seem to be quite blurred in internships system in England.

What were the perks of your internship? 

Although the position was always a bit unclear, the internship eventually led me to part freelancing position. This was a huge benefit that is not known to happen often in fashion industry internships. Professionally I actually gained a lot from the internship. The workload and duties I was given were definitely bigger and more challenging than I expected. My position eventually included travelling across Europe to different suppliers for minor tasks and that was only a short while after starting in the company – that is something that is impossible to learn at university, as supplier relations are difficult to gain without direct experience. Therefore I really got the industry experience. I also got to work closely with the creative director of the company and was included in meetings that are rather confidential, which means that there was a lot of trust involved. The people above me and in my team were very highly skilled, therefore there was a lot for me to learn which I found the biggest benefit of my internship.

I must add that the fact that I was offered freelancing after interning was largely because the company was majorly expanding and desperately needed help. And I happened to be a suitable person in the right place at the right time!

Did your unpaid internship help you find a job in the same field afterwards? 

First it did lead me to freelancing in the same company and it definitely helped me to get a fashion related job after leaving the company. Therefore the system of interning that potentially can lead to a position was in place for me. But I have to admit that after months of 10-16 hours long working days and financial uncertainty I was too exhausted to even want a job in a similar position after leaving a freelancing position that started as an internship. I did follow my internship with a fairly secure position in fashion buying instead of design. Although I did apply for design positions after the internship I did not arrive to securing a job in the exact field.

How come? 

I believe that my hard working nature, that I had examples from my internship and also many complicated situations that I was put in during my internship and I had to find solutions to, helped to prove myself as a worker for the next employer. Also the fact that I was given a chance to work closely with suppliers and in processes with a high level of responsibility in my internship was a huge benefit to show.

How did you manage to work full-time and still pay the bills and rents in one of the most expensive cities in the world? 

This is a tough one – I was working evenings and weekends in a restaurant as a waitress. And this only covered my rent; therefore I had to sometimes ask help from my parents. My internship was actually more than full time – the longest week that I remember was around 65 working hours in a week.

What was the hardest part of your internship? 

There were two main points that were difficult:

Firstly, the working hours and adding my waitressing job to it. When you would expect an internship to have a smaller workload than a full time job, mine was the complete opposite. 12 – 16 hour working days were absolutely normal, which seems to be often a case in luxury fashion jobs.

Arriving home at night from my internship one day and arriving home the next night from my waitressing job was both physically and mentally exhausting.

Having absolutely no days off was a tough schedule. It actually affected both my physical and mental health noticeably at the time.

Secondly, the internal relations of the company were very complicated and navigating in it as first intern and a later a freelancer while staying fully professional was quite a challenge.

Would you do it again, with the same terms? What would you say to people who are considering accepting an unpaid internship? 

No – I would never accept an unpaid internship again. But this is the ongoing complication of the industry;

there is no stop to the system where companies just take on masses of unpaid interns and people keep on accepting, as there seems to be no other option.

But I would say, if one still accepts an unpaid position, it needs to be taken as volunteering – take your tasks seriously as a worker but carry on looking for further opportunities (whether within or outside the company you are interning for) in your career, as an unpaid position is simply not sustainable. And while working in an unpaid internship position – take on absolutely any opportunities within the internship that help to grow you as a professional and where you can learn the most from – make the internship worthwhile. This is the most important part of being an intern.

Any advice?

Be humble because most likely in the position of looking for an internship one will be surrounded with many people to learn from and many people with way wider knowledge.But never accept abuse and be sure to speak up about your financial needs, because no one will offer it to you at first unless you ask.

I think this is crucial to learn to talk about your financial needs even if you are an intern.

It cannot logically be expected that you survive with no income while undertaking an unpaid full time position. 

By now, the UK government has blocked an attempt to have unpaid internships banned. Sadly the draft legislation designed to ensure that anyone working as an intern would be paid the minimum wage, has to put aside. We, as young people, must not loose our motivation on becoming our greater selves.

People say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing. That’s why we recommend it daily.