I was chatting to a zookeeper last night which is not something I’ve ever been able to type before. She spent one day per week volunteering at the zoo whilst taking her zoology degree, and she must have impressed everyone because she was asked to join full time a few months after graduation.
This seems brilliant doesn’t it – she built up her experience and network alongside her degree whilst doing something she enjoyed, and that lead directly to her dream job – brilliant unless you replace the word ‘volunteered’ to ‘worked for nothing’.
Unpaid internships have been very much in the news recently, e.g. Hazel Blears’ interview in The Gateway , and there have been very few people arguing in favour of them. It seems clear cut when talking about Hedge Funds or Investment Banks, less so with high-demand-low-margin industries such as journalism & fashion, and really complicated with the charity sector.
I’m not going to argue in favour of unpaid work either, but I would say that we need to be even-handed here; there’s a grey area between volunteering and investing in your own future by working for free. It also seems a bit hypocritical that many students are leaving university with debts from tuition fees and living costs, but cannot choose to rack up further debts in order to invest in gaining work experience.
If the real issue is leveling the playing field for students from disadvantaged backgrounds then perhaps an alternative could be to help them afford to ‘volunteer’ rather than stop the more advantaged from ‘volunteering’ – gaining real experience is vital for all, and we don’t want to be in a position where there’s no opportunities available for anyone any more.