The post-modern apprenticeship

Suzi Feay recently wrote on both the internship issue and the current state of journalism.

She wrote as follows:

As I wandered I bumped into a few people I knew, agents and editors, scurrying around in between meetings. I stopped by Verso’s stand to chat to Rowan Wilson and to congratulate him on the publication of Intern Nation by Ross Perlin, which exposes the exploitation of young workers. It’s a hot topic at the moment, so in the seminar on breaking into publishing it was a bit odd to hear several industry advisers uncritically recommending internships as the best way in. It was left to Danuta Kean, a shrewd industry-watcher and cultural commentator, to deliver a blistering denunciation of the practice. She pointed out that if you are told to come in at a certain time and given a specific task to perform, as many interns are, then the company is breaking the law on the minimum wage by expecting them to work for nothing.
Kean argued passionately that the practice, favouring London-based graduates who can be supported almost indefinitely by their parents, leads to an out-of-touch industry where the upper-middle-classes are disproportionately represented. She drew an intriguing analogy with newspapers, arguing that the recent catastrophic falls in sales are at least partly due to this class bias and the lack of reflection in staff of society at large. I personally think the prevalent shoplifter’s mentality (I really want it, so I should have it for free) is more to blame for the current crisis in journalism, but it’s an interesting idea.

Now, we have known about this for years, but this doesn’t mean that it’s not important. There have been an awful lot of pixels excited on the education vs experience debate. For interesting takes on Kelvin MacKenzie, see:

Just after the turn of the century, I found myself at the end of my first year of an English degree with nothing much to do. Panic set in, and a student knew a girl who worked in publishing. I ended up on a two-week work experience gig. I paid for my own transport, so it was effectively pay to work time.

After the two weeks were up, I was offered a job. The pay was twelve thousand pounds. Before tax. And travel. Barely subsistance. I was also offered a summer as a sound engineer in the Albery theatre for more … almost twice as much. Effectively, I was asked to choose whether to stick with the university education or do it hands-on. I ended up with a phd.

Now the internship system is iniquitous, yes. Just as the wages offered me made the job doable only for those with some sort of support network. But an internship is really an apprenticeship. Let’s treat it as such.

Now, here’s the rub. The goalposts have changed, and then some. A university degree is soon going to cost 9k before stuff like food and travel. And, for most students doing the humanities, they’re an utter waste of time. Teaching at most universities is currently remedial. This is wrong.

So. Using Richard Carstairs logic (yes, I know), this means that choosing an internship over a degree pays you 9k. You’re taught for free. And taught useful stuff.

Big firms need to wise up. Establish an educational wing. Offer combined vocational/academic degrees. Free labour for the company, free education for the interns. Universities have had their day. They are old-fashioned, flaccid institutions which can’t manage to work out what to do. They are already turning into dichotomous places – soon an academic will be teaching or research.

Both Suzi’s shoplifters manage to get away with it. The perfect compromise.