The distinction between work experience and internships and how to identify valuable opportunities

Internships and work placements in the creative industry can seem inevitable. Salaried positions are often out of reach for graduates as employers are looking for candidates who have previous experience in a similar role. Internships and placements can provide you with the experience and expertise employers are looking for. Here are a few tips on the difference between work experience/placements and internships and how to identify the right opportunities.

Realistically speaking, most creatives have had to work for free at some point in their career. That’s not ethically sound or ok, but it’s become the so-called norm in the creative industries. There are one-off, temporary or short-term working situations where you can decide to accept expertise and experience as payment for your work. For example, maybe you have an opportunity to write an article on an interesting topic for a national publication. Or if you want to work in fashion, you may want to accept an unpaid opportunity to assist one of your favourite designers at a show. It’s up to you to judge whether you think it’s worth accepting an unpaid opportunity. If someone offers you an unpaid role as an assistant at a characterless corporation making tea – stay clear.

You need to establish whether the opportunity will realistically give you new skills and experiences that will help you gain a desirable paid role in the near future. You can do this by analysing the job specification and through conversations with the organisation you’re volunteering with. Question them on specific elements of your role if anything seems ambiguous and make sure you ask them if people have gone on to gain paid roles. This should be a short-term solution to gaining the appropriate experience rather than a long-term strategy.

Do not accept unpaid internships or contract work.The difference between work experience or a placement and actual work – which is anything from internships onwards – is getting paid. Don’t accept any role that requires you to sign a contract from an organisation that isn’t offering you money in return. Don’t accept a long-term role that only offers expenses. Don’t accept any role that pays below the minimum wage. The minimum wage for 18-20 year olds is £5.13 an hour and the minimum wage for people aged over 21 is £6.50 an hour. Some employers pay their interns below minimum wage. You need to work out how many hours you’ll be working and if that equals your rate of the national minimum wage per hour.

An internship should be an investment in your career either through the value of gained skills, expanding your network and experience and/or accessing opportunities that were previously inaccessible. See it as an exchange rather than an employer/employee dynamic – that comes later. Employers know that they aren’t hiring the finished product and they have a responsibility to offer you guidance, tuition and a structure for you to progress.

This is written from the perspective of a UAL postgraduate.