A Lesson from an Intern – Sort Fair Pay
Abbi Connor (University of Leeds graduate) talks to us about the tough lessons she learnt as an intern, and what she would do differently now…
With the end of uni fast approaching, and having spent hours on ‘What to do with an English degree’ websites to no avail, I was beginning to worry about my next step. I’d made the decision to move back home to save money and had my job at the local pub ready and waiting for me, but I knew I needed to really get thinking about a career-related move. In May I decided to reach out to all the contacts I had within the Arts world and, after a discussion with a friend in publishing PR, I started to think about things that interested me, other than books and literature. As I did English Lit and Theatre studies at university, entertainment PR was an obvious connection so, in the middle of some panic-induced exam revision procrastination, I began to research theatre PR firms in London.
As none of the companies I found were advertising internships on Indeed or Total Jobs (other job search companies are available), I decided to find contact info for the company owners/directors and email them directly. I sent a cover letter to several companies and reluctantly went back to my revision, figuring that if I was ever going to get a job, I at least needed to pass my exams first! When I remembered to check my emails a few days later, I was pleasantly surprised to find responses from two agencies inviting me for interviews for intern positions.
After the inevitable post-exam two weeks of lying in a prosecco-induced stupor, I went down to London for my interviews. The first one I was pretty excited about – a small office in Soho who advertised the position as “paid”. The work really excited me, as their clients were not only within the world of fringe theatre but fine art, opera and music also. I left feeling elated and ready to throw myself in at the deep end, pretty much ruling out the second opportunity. However, when I went to the second interview, I found myself instantly clicking with the people who interviewed me; they seemed genuinely interested in me, and what I could bring to the table. And I was familiar with, and excited by their clients – from the comedy, cabaret and podcasting worlds. They also offered me the chance to work at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, which, as an ex-Theatre student, seemed too good to be true. I was told, however, that it would be an unpaid position whilst interning in London, but that I would be paid once we got to Scotland.
I felt stuck. I really loved the second company but the money issue was too problematic to overlook. I couldn’t afford to trek to London 3 times a week for nothing, and even though £20 wasn’t much, I felt as though I had to make the more financially sensible decision. I mulled it over all the way home and (this is where having both a boyfriend and a stepdad who work in sales came in handy) came to the conclusion that there was no harm in a bit of haggling. I explained to the owner of company #2 that I really wanted to come and work for her, but that I had an offer from another company who were willing to pay me £35 a day (I figured a bit of exaggeration couldn’t go amiss), and that I wanted to be honest and tell her I was more inclined to take that offer because it made more financial sense. She came back to me almost immediately saying that she could match the £35, and I was set. Feeling very pleased with myself, I arranged to start mid-June in London and accompany them to Edinburgh in August.
The internship itself was great, after the initial Death By Excel Spreadsheet week. By week 2, I was pitching to journalists, ringing box offices and arranging press interviews for our clients. This immediate hands-on feel came from having a team of only 6, so I was given a fair amount of responsibility pretty quickly, especially at The Fringe. As a “Junior Publicist”, my job was to get Arts reporters in to review our clients’ shows. Living and working in a small flat in the city centre was great when I wanted to wake up 10 minutes before work, but not so great for having a work/life balance. Despite this, a lot of my time was spent running around the city meeting clients, and taking them to press events, podcast recordings and interviews, which was brilliant as I met loads of interesting people and got to know the city really well. It did mean, however, that I was often working past the daily 9-6 requirement, but I assumed, as I’d been told I was no longer an “intern”, that this would show in my wages at the end of the month. I was wrong.
I left Edinburgh a few days early, due to pre-booked holiday (all OK’d with the boss before I started). On my return, I found they would only pay my intern rate of £35 a day – which worked out less than £3.88 an hour. As they said I’d be “paid” in Edinburgh, I’d assumed I would earn a better rate, as I was no longer an intern, had actual responsibility and was doing work that was of value to the company. I expressed this concern to my boss, who said it was a flat rate of £1000 for the month, but because I left 3 days early and arrived a day late, it was less for me. £300 less!
This seemed so unfair, especially when I had never been told I would be penalised for taking the pre-agreed holiday. I knew that technically, by law this was wrong and I was owed at least minimum wage for the work I’d been doing, but as I’m still £500 into my student overdraft (Edinburgh drained me dry), I needed the money more than the argument.
It’s such a shame that the money issue left me feeling sour about the whole experience. I learned so much, got to see some amazing shows, and have a lot of great skills to add to my CV, but I can’t help thinking that my youth and need for experience has led to me being exploited. I had a lot of responsibility and assumed the work was valuable to the company, but they used the “intern” excuse to get away with paying me virtually nothing.
I learned a tough lesson – Know your worth and iron out any money queries BEFORE you start. Money is a difficult subject, but I really regret not checking my payment terms in advance. I know now to be more savvy. I’ve now started a year-long paid position starting, with a proper contract and salary; I’m enjoying working for a more organised and honest company.
Studied English Literature and Theatre Studies at the University of Leeds
Lover of peanut butter, coffee and good books.
Currently looking to get her career rolling, whilst saving up to travel the world.
HelloGrads Takeaway Tips:
Don’t be exploited
The majority of internships (whatever their length) must now be paid at least the minimum wage. (And most businesses behave decently and obey the law).
See here for more info about rules and exceptions, and how you can claim back money if you were underpaid.
Know before you go
Before you take on an internship, make sure you know what to expect from the experience – ask savvy questions to find out what the work involves, what responsibilities you would have, whether it might lead to a permanent job, and of course the pay! Find out here how to get the most out of internships and work experience.
Apply on speculation
Don’t be put off if there are no advertised internships/jobs. It’s always worth contacting a company with a personalised cover letter, showing your interest and asking about opportunities. Click here for how to apply on spec, and what to include in your cover letter.