Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Work experience - making it a worth while experience

We have an intern starting today, and lucky thing, he'll be sat opposite me. His imminent arrival has caused a bit of a stir in the office: 

Who is he? Someone's cousin

How long is he going to be here for? 1 month

What is an 'intern'? An American word for work experience?

What jobs that we've been putting off for ages can we get him to do? Loads!

And finally, what does he want to get out of it? Now that is the most important question of them all. You see I have strongly held passionate opinions on work experience, formed over years in commercial radio. If you want to be a broadcast journalist you're going to end up on work experience. It's a compulsory part of the postgraduate qualification, three weeks unpaid towards the end of the course.

Why compulsory? Because you may know how to operate a mini-disk recorder or god forbid a uher (showing my age now!) You may know how to edit a piece of audio, how to read a bulletin (sort of), how to write a script (sort of). But it's not until your work experience, that you understand how all these elements come together and how to do all of these things twice as fast and under pressure. 

Work experience at it's best benefits both the experiencer and the experiencee.  Great work experience lets you try out the dozens of new skills you've learnt at college, it allows you to watch experts, and sometimes if you're really lucky, geniuses at work. It's inspirational, it's fun, it's challenging. It can help you to decide whether the job you think you want, really is the one for you. And sometimes, if you're really gifted and/or really lucky, it results in paid work.

As a news editor I had strict rules about work experience:

They had to be over 18 and they had to demonstrate a real desire to be a broadcast journalist, preference would be given to those on BJTC courses, those volunteering at college/hospital radio. Why? Because we didn't have time to look after school children. But more importantly we wanted passionate people who had specifically chosen our radio station and our profession.

They could join us for three weeks unpaid, but no more. If at the end of those three weeks we wanted them to stay longer, then I would pay them. If at the end of the first week they/or I felt they weren't working out, they would be asked to leave (I only asked someone to leave once in 6 years, and in my defence she was dreadful, we still talk about her!)

They had to have a driving license. By the end of the three weeks a great work experience could be sent all over the county gathering audio. Being able to drive the radio car was essential, especially when I fainted mid-interview and the work experience had to drive me home!?

They had to come in for an interview. We got so many applications for work experience, if they came for an interview it showed commitment and made the first day a lot less scary. I never turned someone down based on an interview, it was just a good way for each of us to understand what we wanted to get out of the experience.

Why did I make them jump through so many hoops?

Because we did work experience so well, we provided such excellent coaching and advice, and spent so much time with our work experience, I had to be sure we weren't wasting our time. That might sound a bit strong, but we really cared and really put time and thought into our work experience programme. Maybe because we all remembered our work experience and knew how significant a good work experience could be.

And a bad work experience?

A bad experience could result in really great people leaving the industry, people without the right skills or attitude doggedly pursuing a career that didn't suit them, and people working for free for far longer than is right or necessary; this is a particular bugbear of mine.  By the end of three weeks a good work experience is another reporter, at some small stations they may even be an additional newsreader. Once they reach that point they must move on to paid work. It is not fair on the individual and it's not fair on freelancers looking to be paid a wage for a days work. As soon as the balance tips and the company is getting more from the work experience than the individual is getting from the experience, you must let them go, or pay them. In radio people would regularly offer to work for free, sometimes for a day, sometimes for a week or even longer. They are desperate to get into the industry and think working for free is a way in. But what they're doing devalues them and their contemporaries. If they are a fully trained, talented broadcast journalist, why would they work for free? They're worth more than that. 

While you're training at college or university get all the quality work experience you can, be clear with the company about what you want to get out of it, as well as what you can offer. But as soon as you're qualified, and it's no longer an experience, you should be paid for the work you're doing.

At the same time we were having this conversation at work, a similar discussion was obviously going on in the offices of Journalism.co.uk.  You can read more about the journalism unpaid intern debate.


What do you think of work experience?  Tell us about work experience that inspired you?  Or your horror stories?

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