So, the guardian have yesterday published the shock news that nearly half of people starting work in a media job begin by working for free, I’m not entirely sure why either the newspaper or Skillset who produced the research are surprised at this. My first experience within a professional radio company was unpaid (two weeks work experience with global radio) and almost everyone I know who’ve gone on from student radio to working in the industry have done so through similar circumstances. I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to work in a professional environment with equipment far superior to that I got to play with in student radio.

The thing I don’t understand is what Skillset think is wrong with this, no employer is going to recruit someone without the skills or experience they’re looking for – or at least some obvious sign of the dedication or foundations needed to achieve these skills. All employers are the same in this case, there’s a good chance you’ll have to do some work-experience to get to the level employers are looking for. In a past life when I was destined to become a Chemical Engineer, I wasn’t paid as I gained some of the skills needed to work in this industry – in fact I was paying for the privilege. This is called a degree, and I don’t see the papers suggesting these are exploiting innocent students by charging an obscene amount of money for what amounts to subsidising the research of aging academics, whilst occasionally being rambled at by said academics or worse still cheap post-docs who struggle with the concept of the English language (let alone thermodynamics). As is often said, there’s no set route into media – some go down the degree route, others from voluntary/community radio, others purely through work experience type roles – all of these have a part to play.

Further to this, the idea that to gain the experience to work in an industry you’ll end up working for free somewhere along the line is hardly unique to media – my girlfriend has just landed a short term contract working as an ecologist, about 10 months after graduating from a biology degree. She found it hard to even get an interview for a paid position before peppering her CV with internships and work-experience. It’s a vicious circle, when the job market is competitive every employer is looking for some experience of a similar job – but until you’ve had a job you wont have that experience – work experience offers a chance to do that.

As for the idea that the best people might not find themselves working in the industry because they don’t get the ‘foot in the door’ – I shall misquote Thomas Edison and say that Creativity is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration – in any job you’re going to need to work hard and be willing to take on a number of things, possibly with quite long hours (commercial radio is well known for this) – the dedication to make contacts and get placements etc. should confirm you’re likely to put this kind of effort in for an employer.

Incidentally – if you are interested in getting experience within the radio industry, The Student Radio Association has a vary nice opportunities page (wot I wrote) featuring paid and unpaid positions, and also a couple of sites it’s worth a nose around if your interested in structured work experience such as that offered by the BBC.

Having said all of the above, one further piece of advice – don’t let yourself be exploited by being too willing to work for free. At some point you’re going to want to convert this unpaid work into an actual job, right – and the longer you work for free – the more likely you are to be taken for granted. Don’t stay anywhere too long, participate in structred schemes where possible and make sure you’re getting something out of it; making contacts, learning skills or whatever. Once you’re in a position that you can do whatever it is your doing blindfolded – the role is no longer any use to you as experience – at this point you need to start asking if there’s any paid work going within the station – if there’s not, stick it on your CV (along wit ha nice bullet-point list of the skills learned) and either get applying for jobs, or move on to do work experience somwhere else – allowing you to further increase that skills list, and making you an even tastier prospect for a potential employer.

After giving all that advice I feel a bit like Quindon Tarver having read the excellent monologue for Baz Luhrmann’s Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) – for that reason (and naturally completely off topic) I’ll leave you with the last Stanza of that monologue originally from a New York Times article by Mary Schmich (the full lyrics are here)…

Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of
fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the
ugly parts and recycling it for more than
it’s worth. But trust me on the sunscreen…

(Photo: Florian on Flickr)