The Drum

By Rebecca Armitage

These days, they seem to be in almost every office in Australia — students and graduates working for free in the hope of getting a foot in the door in an increasingly competitive job market.

They get the coffee, answer the phones, do the photocopying, and hopefully make connections that will lead to paid work.

But are companies offering internships to foster young talent, or are they exploiting a generation of young people desperate to kickstart their careers?

This week, the Fair Work ombudsman launched an investigation to be led by two University of Adelaide law professors to find out. Andrew Stewart and Rosemary Owens say their intention is not to illegalise internships, but to ensure young people are protected by uniform guidelines.

At 26, I have three internships on my resume. Two were undertaken in Australia, and both were positive, if not occasionally bizarre, experiences.

However, my third internship, which I just finished last month, took place in the United States Congress. This too was an incredible opportunity, but it also took me to a country where young people toil away for years in unpaid positions.

Entry level jobs are scarce, leaving thousands of graduates willing to do just about anything to break into their chosen industry. Hopefully the Fair Work ombudsman's investigation will stop this happening to young Australians.

As a journalism student, I knew I was entering a dying industry. Internships, I was repeatedly told by my professors, were the only way to find a job.

When I was 21, I spent several months interning at Cosmopolitan magazine. One day a week, I would help the features department with their research and do the administrative tasks that no-one else had time for.

I fact checked, once calling a sexual health expert to ensure the tips they offered in that edition would indeed please their readers' boyfriends. Another time, I was asked to set up a database of slang terms for various sex acts to help the writer working on the sealed section (my father was particularly proud of me that day).

It wasn't going to win me a Walkley Award, but doing those tasks helped me build valuable research skills and I walked away with some good stories to tell.

The following year, I took an internship with Channel Nine's ill-fated chat-fest The Catch-Up. The show got off to a bad start, enraging its target audience by replacing the US soap The Young and the Restless.

Everyone knew it was doomed from the beginning, but I was given on-the-job training in television production, not to mention a front row seat to Eddie McGuire's heyday at the Nine Network.

This year, I took one last internship at a bipartisan foreign policy commission in the United States. With a full-time job to call my own, I was motivated to go to Washington by my nerdish obsession with The West Wing rather than the need to find work.

And so, for the first few months of this year, I answered phones, sorted mail and photocopied a mountain of documents for the US government. I sat in on congressional briefings. I walked the marbled halls of the House Office buildings.

After weeks of relentless stalking, I snapped a blurry picture of the secretary of state Hillary Clinton walking to a House foreign relations hearing. It was amazing.

However, the competition among the slew of interns in Congress was so fierce, so vicious that I sometimes felt like I'd been dropped into a Hunger Games arena where graduates destroy each other for paid jobs.

At first I presumed the other interns in my office spent their days writing each other bitchy emails and stealing their assigned tasks because they were unpleasant people.

But over time, I began to hear their stories. All of them had graduated from university, but none had been able to find work. One intern was 25 and had never had a paid job. Instead she'd bounced around from internship to internship hoping someone would give her a chance.

The commission we interned for had recently cut two entry-level jobs and it was us who filled the void. Most had parents who supported them financially, but others worked behind bars at night to pay their rent.

While I was in Washington, an intern at US Harper's Bazaar magazine filed a lawsuit against its publisher after spending months working 55-hour weeks without pay. Diana Wang, 28, is hoping to turn her suit into a class action. When I asked my fellow interns if they'd ever take part, they all laughed.

'No one's going to hire her now,' they said. 'Why would you ruin your chances at getting a job?'

Internships are meant to be mutually beneficial experiences. The employer develops an intern's professional skills and the intern helps lighten the company's administrative load.

But young people can't be a stopgap measure to help a firm get through a recession. Internships can't be exercises in futility for those whose parents can bankroll them. And they certainly shouldn't just be for West Wing dorks with too much annual leave.

The only way that can occur is if interns are granted the same rights and protections as everyone else in the office.

Rebecca Armitage is a producer at ABC Radio's International Desk. She has a master's degree in US Studies from the University of Sydney.