Experience or Exploitation?
Like many other students this summer, I did some work experience. I had always thought of work experience as something you did because you had to in secondary school, mainly for the benefit of those who did not intend to go on to university. With my entrance into employment becoming evermore imminent, it dawned on me just quite how important it could be to one’s career planning and prospects.
Whilst doing my work experience there was some controversy over, how companies treat those who come to do work experience with them. It was suggested that many were taking advantage of students, using them as free labour, and paying only for their lunch and travel expenses. While companies in London do offer travel expenses, they only do so for travel in London. For people like me, who live a significant distance away, having travel within London paid for makes little difference. This kind of arrangement seems to be normal, but is it really fair? All these questions were being asked while I was doing my work experience, and it made me consider to what extent I was being used.
Doing work experience can be quite an inconvenience, not only do you lose time that you could use to do paid work, but it can be considerably more effort to get to the placement. Working in London was difficult for me as, although I did stay with friends for some of the time, I had to pay for accommodation for the rest. I was lucky enough to be awarded a work experience bursary by the university, but even with this I lost a fair bit of money. When I agreed to do the work experience, I knew this would be the case and chose to do it anyway, but it made me feel I needed to get more out of each opportunity to make it worth it.
My first placement was with a television production company. Everyone there was lovely, and were willing to let me help out doing a variety of different jobs. Like every other work experience placement, there was administrative work to be done, but I did not seem to be asked to do that much of it. They appeared to appreciate my input, and made me feel very welcome. I enjoyed myself so much that I did not want to leave; if I could have done, I would have carried on working on the production for free until it finished. Overall, the whole thing felt more like an experience than formal work. I supsect that this is more likely to be the case in smaller companies as an extra person is a bonus, and their help is more tangible.
After two weeks working in television, I went on to work in a large publishing house. I love books, so expected to enjoy this placement even more than the first.
What struck me most about this second placement was the number of people doing work experience, and not just students; there were quite a lot of graduates too. While I waited to be collected on my first day I spoke to four other people who were also starting that day. This made the atmosphere a lot more competitive. I took short lunch breaks and did not leave until I had done as much work as I could. Most probably I would have done all of this anyway, but the fear of being compared to others made the experience more pressured. This had been compounded by the fact that, prior to starting the work experience, it had been suggested to me that work experience was used as a way of recruiting a significant number of their staff. I suppose it works both ways, you show yourself up in the best light, and the company get the most from you.
Being used to having someone on work experience around, it did not feel that my work was appreciated as much as it had been in the last placement. This became quite disheartening, it seemed as though all the effort I had put into being in London was disregarded. By the time I got to the last week I had been living out of a suitcase for a month, working long hours, had no facilities or time for cooking myself meals, and was missing my friends and family. I am not, I am sure, the only person who has ever felt like this. It is not easy to have to wake up each morning and work hard for no return.
I did find the time I spent at the publishers very interesting. Along with hours spent photocopying, putting books in envelopes, and making show cards (a reflection on what everyone else had to do rather than them getting me to do all the boring jobs), I got to do some more exciting things. By the end of my placement I had a good feel for publicity, and learnt a lot about the book trade in general. On my last day I was given a card and a bag of books to say thank you. To be appreciated made it all seem worth it, however small the gesture, and weeks of tiredness and malnutrition were forgotten.
It would be easy for companies to take advantage of people doing work experience, to exploit and then disregard them. However, it is inconvenient, and takes time for them to look after those doing work experience. When doing work experience, it is vital to make the most of it, to make sure you get something back for your free labour.