For the last few months – spurred on by a sense of impending job-application-doom – I have been volunteering one day a week at the offices of a local charity, boosting my CV, gaining invaluable life experience, etc. etc. I’m sure you’ve all heard the rhetoric by now. But as I sit here, in a rather dismal – and largely deserted – business park in South London, I can’t help but ask myself: What am I really getting out of this? I have no doubt – because the career gurus in the Queen’s Building have told me it is so – that prospective employers will be deeply impressed with such an entry on my work profile, but I’m not entirely convinced it’s benefitting me all that much. In fact, every week it’s becoming clearer to me that internships, as things currently stand, are largely a facade – an empty, but sadly necessary, routine that our luckless generation are forced to endure in order to please the human resources interrogators.
Now, I’m not saying that my internship hasn’t had its benefits, either for me or for the organisation for which I’ve been working. I’ve been able – along with my fellow interns – to make a contribution to an enterprise that serves its community faithfully and with the bare minimum of financial remuneration, and my time here has certainly given me an insight into the trials and tribulations of the so-called Third Sector (charities and stuff, in case you’ve never heard that term either). But I think the value of volunteering as a way of gaining professional experience is greatly overstated. Since I started my internship a month ago, I’ve received very little by way of support or guidance, and most of the research experience and knowledge I have gained has been mostly through my own initiative. Good practice, I guess, but not exactly an inspiring introduction to the office environment.
There is also another elephant in the cold, sparsely-decorated room of volunteering: the ever-present question of money. Now, I’m fortunate to have found – through Queen Mary’s QProjects initiative – an internship that I can fit alongside my studies and part-time work (which I’ll come back to later). The ‘best’ kinds of internship, however, are the more work- and time-intensive summer placements that many students undertake during their vacation time. But if, like me, you don’t have the money to spend your summer working hard just for travel expenses and lunch (if you’re lucky), you’re missing out on a major opportunity. All in all, I’m pretty disillusioned and disenchanted with the job market and its demands for the sorts of work experience that you don’t get paid for.
Personally, my most useful experiences have been in the world of part-time work. I’ve worked for a string of national supermarkets, doing pretty menial jobs, and this has allowed me to support myself (sort of) while gaining those much-revered skills of teamwork, communication, time-management, and all that jazz. I know that employers will appreciate these experiences; they just won’t appreciate them as much as they would an internship, or as much as they should. But this disparity is to the detriment of both the emerging workforce and their future employers. People should be rewarded for trying to earn their own money, and for the skills they develop in doing so. The gap-yah set can carry on supporting the voluntary sector – it’s an admirable way to invest your time, if you don’t need to work to eat – but us less privileged students shouldn’t be punished for ducking and diving our way through the financial minefield of higher education: you’d be surprised what we’ve learnt along the way.