If it wasn’t for unpaid work experience and interning when I was younger, I don’t think I would have progressed as far as I did in my chosen professions. I wrote words without pay, on the promise of publication if the outcome was good enough. I donated my services to film and TV crews, lugging gear and fetching coffee and putting my newly-earned driver’s license to good use. I volunteered my time to a theatre in my regional home town for the front of house experience that would eventually lead me to paid theatre work once I moved to the big smoke.
There is a long-standing and complicated tradition of volunteering for experience, exposure and learning opportunities in the arts. Work experience is invaluable for the opportunities it provides young people to improve their skills, navigate the real world, and meet people who can mentor, guide and employ them.
It’s complicated by the fact that unpaid work can also lead to disappointment and time-wastage on a minor scale, and abject exploitation and subjugation at its worst. As someone who works regularly with young people, the hair-raising stories of broken promises, overt discrimination, sexual harassment and plain old dickheadedness are plentiful.
Happily, Fair Work Australia is doing its best to uncomplicate the rules of work experience and unpaid internships.
If someone is working, and could reasonably be assumed to be acting as an employee, then that person should be paid. There are exceptions, however.
- Unpaid trials: Employers usually don’t need to pay for a potential employee to prove that they know their way around a job, as long as that period of time is brief. A few hours is OK, a week is not.
- Student Placements: Universities, schools and colleges often require students to undertake vocational placements as an assessable part of their course. The institution should arrange placements, but a student can initiate placement with a business directly, as long as that placement is in line with the requirements of their course and approved by the institution.
- Work Experience and Internships: This one is vague, but generally if the intern is learning on the job, if their focus is on developing their skills rather than being ‘productive’, if the placement is short, and the main benefit of the work goes to the intern and NOT the business, then it’s OK not to pay. Be careful though, check with Fair Work first.
Creative Plus Business has used a large number of unpaid interns and vocational placements over the years, and it’s been fantastic. All of my staff and freelancers but one have come to me through work experience. I prefer using educational placements, as the approval of the process and the lack of exploitation is important to me. We’ve had interns from 15-year-old work experience kids to university graduates, and we’ve never regretted it. Creative businesses of all shapes and sizes can benefit enormously from contacting a local school or tertiary institution and asking to be included as a potential source for work experience placements.
A few tips before taking on an intern:
Find jobs in advance: Don’t just wait for your intern to show up, and hope for the best. Think in advance about what needs doing, how it should be done, and what the intern could learn from the experience.
Institute some training: For unpaid work experience to be lawful, it can’t just be about fetching coffee and lugging gear. How can you teach your intern something new? Is there some online learning you could provide, or on-the-job training? Can you partner them with someone within your business, or one of your suppliers or colleagues, who could give them some insights about your industry?
Create a schedule. Thanks to one of our employees, who started off as our intern, Creative Plus Business now has a draft work experience schedule that we can adapt to each new person. Our schedule includes induction, interviewing people in the office about their careers, outings, creative activities, learning both in-person and online, and the chance to write a report and contribute feedback and suggestions to the next person’s placement. There are several good examples of similar templates online, including this one from Education Victoria.
Build Up Your Processes: For many of our clients, who could really use the extra pair of hands, unpaid interns are not an option because the business itself is disorganised. The anxiety of trying to work out how to use them is all too much. Even teeny-tiny and freelance businesses need a process. This could be as simple as a point-form answer to the question “how do we organise our receipts and invoices?” though to a full-blown SOP manual. The more organised the business, the better off everyone will be, especially the intern. For more information on writing up processes, check out my earlier article.
Interning and work experience season is upon us, as universities and high schools start wrapping up for the year, and creative businesses can really benefit from the extra help. Help a young person, and help yourself, for the betterment of everybody involved.