So, work experience; a hot topic of late as the economy spirals into doom and thousands of quite capable people have found themselves jobless, willing to do anything to make themselves that little bit more employable. Here I’m going to try to make head or tail of it, as well as tell you a little bit of my own firsthand account.

I approached PushON just over a month ago regarding the possibility of gaining some work experience. I was met with an air of hesitation. Not because they weren’t lovely, helpful people of course. It turned out there were two main issues that just weren’t sitting right with them.

  1. What are the ethics surrounding unpaid labour?
  2. How do you make it a useful exchange?

Let me draw your attention to the phrase ‘exchange’. Most people can recognise numerous benefits for the volunteer. For me, as one of the infamous unemployed graduates, I was keen to be seen to be doing something, if only to dispel the myth that I was sat around watching daytime TV. Obviously there would be benefits for my CV with the new experience too. But with no matter how capable and self starting I consider myself to be, with every new body to a workplace there is a ‘finding your way around’ period. An investment of time from the people in the company for at least some sort of introduction or training is unavoidable, so what are they getting out of it?

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime – Chinese Proverb

My argument is that businesses can gain from an unpaid intern, providing they choose an adaptable and quality candidate. How do you do that? It’s been said past behaviour is a good indicator of future behaviour. Probably bodes well if the candidate has demonstrable experience of working unsupervised. Failing that, maybe agree a short trial before being lumbered with a useless blob for a full 2 weeks. But let’s not be too cynical, according to recent reports around 25% of internships end up with permanent paid roles within that company. To me this suggests that some interns are just too useful to let go of!

As for the question of ethics, is benefiting from unpaid work always exploitation? I say no, the candidate has offered their services in the knowledge that it is on a voluntary basis and are also free to leave if they feel they’re being treated unfairly. The topic is surrounded by some controversy however. Some of you might have seen in the news recently that for the first time ever, an intern has successfully sued her work experience employers for the right to minimum wage (read the article from the Guardian here). PushON instigated an informal Twitter debate whilst considering taking me on board and it turned out people had a lot to say. The consensus seems to be, in both instances, that the line isn’t necessarily in relation to how long the placement lasts; it’s the nature of the work you assign to them.

Anyway, I’m pleased to say I managed to sweet talk PushON into taking me on, on the condition that I took a project from start to finish so that I benefited from a holistic experience and the company benefited from a measurable unit of work.

“How did it go?” I hear you cry.

Well the truth is, I had great fun with it. My favourite time of the week was probably the bacon meetings. Not only did I get a bacon barm out of it, being involved in the brain storming sessions made me realise just how limited my knowledge was. Sometimes just being in that working environment and hearing the conversations was even more insightful than my tasks.

I was given the task of assessing the current digital strategy of one client and analysing where there was room for expansion and how to squeeze the most out of every bit of content using the current channels. Now being a marketing grad combined with being a regular user of Facebook and a keen tweeter (@misscole) , I thought I had a good grasp of how brands were using digital platforms. I kind of knew what Flickr could do, was aware of blogs and enjoy sharing the occasional funny advert on YouTube. Boy, were my eyes opened by all the things that were going on out there. I learnt that platforms I knew about had greater power than I’d imagined and how there is a whole host of things out there I simply hadn’t got a clue about. How naive I’d been…

I also got the answer to the burning question which drove me to approach PushON, an online agency, over other types marketing agencies. I’d wanted to get to the bottom of what SEO actually is.

I knew it stood for Search Engine Optimisation and had to do with getting up the rankings of Google (or something or other) but it was frustrating me that I didn’t have any concept of how it was done. Not only did I get hands on experience of most aspects of SEO in the work I was given, I was also given  15 minutes with every member of staff to make sure I had a good understanding of every single part of it.

So was the placement a success?

Lorna was a great help during her time at PushON. We had the luxury of an extra pair of hands to work on things that would normally put on hold due to a focus on client work and immediate deadlines. And while we took some time to train Lorna, her contribution more than made up for the initial investment.

Katrina Gallagher – Operations Manager

As for me? Unfortunately I had to leave earlier than I’d hoped. The good news is that I had to leave in order to start my new full time role as a Digital Media Assistant for a media company. My placement with PushON gave me some real hands on experience and the confidence that that I know where I want my career to go. After months of looking, I‘d say my experience at PushON definitely helped me secure my new role.

Lorna Cole