I wasn’t going to get involved with the discussion about unpaid internships and free labour. Some blogs and post on social media a few weeks ago got me thinking and I hashed most of this post together but still didn’t put it out. Something today however brought the matter back to my attention and I just wanted to say a few things. It’s very easy to say that something isn’t fair and must be changed but we have to remember that lots of these organisations are charities and that there are a few facts that can often be forgotten. A lot of what I’ve written is neither arguments for or against unpaid internships but they are things that I think need to be considered before claiming NGO’s need to do more so please bear with me whilst I waffle on!
A lot of charities (particularly the different Wildlife Trusts) exist because of people being willing to do the work for free. These NGOs were formed and, to begin with, ran by volunteers who gave up their time to work towards something they felt passionate about. Even now they are hugely dependant on the work of volunteers. In my current position we have at least 13 volunteers for every paid member of staff. We just couldn’t exist without people giving up their time to help us, without expecting a monetary reward.
NGOs are not free to spend money where ever they want. Some money falls under ‘restricted income’ which means that it has to be spent on certain projects or sites, making this untouchable to even consider paying an intern. The rest of the budget is often not enough to cover the rest of the work that the charity wants to do that year. I’ve known reserves in desperate need of fencing (to keep them stock proof, so they can be grazed so not to breach any agreements, and thus ensure the NGO avoids a fine), having to wait an extra year because the budgets been tight. Some times we’ve been unable to buy any more tools or equipment for reserves work, expect in an absolute emergency, making our jobs more difficult. In the grand scheme of things, looking after our reserves and protecting our wildlife, and having the means to do that comes first, so yes NGO’s will chose to prioritise other things over paying their interns.
Another thing worth remembering is that lots of organisations take on people at the beginning of their career, knowing that they won’t be able to offer them a job at the end. This means said intern/trainee/volunteer will take all their skills, knowledge and training off to benefit an organisation other than the one which invested the time and money in them. NGO’s are aware of this and yet it does not stop them offering these positions. Training courses are not cheap, often costing hundreds of pounds, and yet NGO’s are willing to fund them to help further their interns’ career. Whilst I was on a Reserves Placement with my local Wildlife Trust at home, they sent me on training courses, and helped me gain experiences the midweek volunteers didn’t, purely to help me get a paid position in practical conservation. The Reserves Assistant at that Trust gave up lots of her own time to teach me different skills, share her knowledge of the reserves and answer my many questions. She didn’t gain anything from it, and could have used the time to do other work, yet she, and other members of the Trust were more than willing to help me.
Jobs can be hard to come by, and require lots of experience to get as there aren’t actually that many around. When lots of people are applying for a job you need some way to narrow down the field and unfortunately that can come down to experience; the more you have the better your chances of getting the job as you’ll be the most capable. Once someone has secured a job it is likely to be quite a while before they move on (once they’ve landed that sought after permanent contact). More than one person has jokingly told me that waiting for a reserves job to open up means waiting for a member of the reserves team to die! Staying in a job long term makes sense, not just for the job stability, but because practical conservation is a long process. If you want to see the results of your hard work, how clearing that patch of scrub meant the wildflowers can now flourish or creating that reedbed means booming Bitterns have moved in, then it will involve sticking around for years, not months.
The main issue here in my eyes, and quite possibly the reason unpaid internships exist, is that lots of people are finishing university, hoping to start a career in conservation and suddenly realising that the last three years haven’t provided them with any of the skills that they actually need (exactly what happened to me). This comes down to a lack of knowledge about what jobs are out there and what they entail. Conservation requires some rather specialist skills, and although studying does provide you with some transferable ones, three years reading papers on Animal Behaviour and manipulating insects in a lab doesn’t leave you capable of managing a nature reserve. If I’d been more aware of what was needed to work in practical conservation I’d have used my weekends and holidays more wisely and started volunteering whilst I was still studying. Maybe if I’d known even earlier, I wouldn’t have gone to university, but instead done a more practical college course, such as Countryside Management, or got a part time job to earn some money around volunteering. As it happens I ended up doing the latter, just four years later. And before anyone brings up the fact that a lot of jobs ask for a degree, that isn’t quite true. From the many job applications I’ve filled in over the last three years there has been a shift lately to asking for either a degree OR relevant experience. Internships exist because there is this gap in knowledge and experience, and they are a way of filling it to give individuals a chance of landing that paid job. If this gap could be filled, at school or university, then people would be able to go straight into jobs.
I don’t know how to go about combating this lack of awareness of the skills that are needed; better careers advice at schools and Universities, established professionals offering up their time to talk to young people about what working in conservation actually involves, a complete overhaul of university courses to teach relevant material? Who knows! But I think we need to be careful about slating those who are at least doing something to help fill in the gap!
I know not everything I’ve stated above is an argument for keeping unpaid internships, but I think that it is all worth bearing in mind before having a go at NGO’s who may well be doing the best they physically can.
In my current job we’ve been discussing hosting a Voluntary Officer later on in the year; it’s unpaid, but I’m all for it. It’s not because I want to get free work out of them, or an ‘I served my time, you can serve yours’ attitude. I want to do it because I know how it feels to want to do something but to not quite be experienced enough, and I know how amazing and invaluable these programmes are. In an ideal world we would have the funds to cover their living costs, but I also know that this is the real world and so all we can do is offer them the best that we can.
(All views expressed in this piece are my own)