5 good reasons to do unpaid work experience


I tried very hard to keep out of the work experience debate that’s been raging over the past few months as a result of the Government’s controversial Workfare scheme that (up until the u-turn last week) required young jobseekers to carry out “voluntary” work experience or face losing some of their benefit allowance.

Unpaid work experience – exploitation or necessary career advancement?

I was doing quite well until I read a great article in The Telegraph by Sainsbury’s Chief Executive Justin King, which was titled, “Don’t let work experience debate destroy its real value” – someone talking some sense at last!!!

Yes, there are “evil” employers out there who have nothing better to do than exploit the work experience system and the “poor, helpless youngsters” caught in its trap, however despite all that, I believe there is much value to be found in working “for free” – in fact, I attribute much of my career success to date to having done so many work experience placements when I was starting out (I wrote an article for The Guardian about this, back in 2005 at the peak of my internships).

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of free labour when you’re aged 16-24 and trying to carve out a career path for yourself, but if you still need convincing, here are five reasons why I think youngsters should roll up their sleeves and dive right in to the world of work – unpaid:

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So what do you think? Are you convinced working for free can be a good thing or is it just plain old exploitation in sheep clothing…?

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  1. PeterJamesBarden /

    Mildred, hi!
    Loved your post on the gradpreneurs, however am dubious on the points you raise here. You say you undertook a lot of work experience to get where you want to be. Now, unless you are exceptionally lucky, I would easily bet that you either: 
    a) had a base for free in London (friends / family)
    b) had understanding / generous parents to help you get by 
    c) had no need to be office based to get the experience you required
    The vast majority of graduates do not fall into either of these categories. Therefore, I argue that this “free work” system continues to be propped up by those that can afford it, precluding the vast majority the ability to participate (especially important in the NGO / government / non-profit public sectors), all the while undermining any incentive to change the status-quo (c.18,000 hours given away for free a week in Parliament for example). Its not about the PRINCIPLE of free work, but the SUPPORT required to partake. 
    I can say from personal experience that living / eating / travelling in London for 10 months over 2 internships in the public sector is an absolute nightmare. The government don’t recognise you as a job seeker, so you are not eligible for any help. It has now become a luxury box-ticking exercise, like Duke of Edinburgh award – sounds empowering in principle though utterly useless in practicality. Internships have lost serious clout over the last decade on both sides – a) interns are largely left to data input / photocopy, b) employers in reality offer very little support either in terms of contacts or future job opportunities. Of course, there are exceptions, though these are (very) few and far between. 
    Check out http://www.internsanonymous.co.uk for a whole swathe of accounts similar to mine. 
    Separately would love your reference for this quote, would be a good read Richard Sant, Enterprise Director at the University of Portsmouth, writes in a Phoenix article that an interesting phenomenon is emerging whereby “the harder a student or graduate tries to start their own business, the more likely they are to be headhunted or offered a job”. 
    Would be delighted to have a chat with you about my new venture – Graduate Unleashed. A 3-month inspirational / educational course (bi-monthly meets) for undergraduates, aiming to equip them with skills / energy required to start social venture or a business. Culminating in pitch fest. Lots of sponsors involved that each mentor a different module – funding / finance / pitching etc 

    • @PeterJamesBarden
      Hi Pete,
      Thank you for taking the time to submit such a detailed comment. Firstly, you’re right – I did a lot of work experience when I was young, single, relatively carefree, and yes, living rent-free with parents (though I did chip in on gas bills etc). I also had a part-time job working in retail so I had some of my own income, albeit minimal, coming in to support my free labour career advancement.
      Though I do agree that not all grads have access to free/cheap accommodation, there are however many other benefits of being a student/graduate, including cheaper travel – useful for getting to that job interview and holding down a part-time job!
      I don’t intend to discount the genuine experiences of hard-working grads who are truly suffering as a result of back-to-back internships with no golden carrot of a paid job in sight (I have a friend who resided to calling herself a “professional intern” after years of such experience!), however, I do think there is a “help expectancy” culture in our Western – benefit system driven – society that prevents people from taking their own careers into their hands and doing what’s necessary (in this case working for free) to get ahead and I think herein lies the problem.
      There is of course a limit to how long you can work for free – the idea is to only do it until you feel comfortable enough in your knowledge and experience to apply for paid jobs then you can wave goodbye to internships for the rest of your career.
      I wrote an article for The Guardian back in 2005 on how to make the most of work experience at the time when I was a “serial intern” myself. Much of it is still applicable today – http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2005/feb/19/graduates.studentwork
      On your other subjects…
      The quote was in the January 2012 edition of the AGCAS journal, Phoenix – http://www.agcas.org.uk/agcas_resources/25-Phoenix; and yes, I’d be happy to talk to you about Graduate Unleashed – details on the contact page.
      I look forward to speaking with you soon…


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