The legal definition of what actually constitutes work and therefore should be paid at least minimum wage is this: having set hours, being engaged for an extended period of time, i.e. office hours 9-5, being given a set role. Now for anyone who has taken part on an internship lately they will know that these are exactly the criteria of the roles that are being dished out in lieu of paid work, and all in exchange for experience and a bus ticket. Most of the time you wont even get lunch paid for and will end up actually out of pocket working for someone else. This to me seems a little unfair and is the kind of thing that makes you feel as though your degree was in fact worthless. Not only do you have a huge pile of debt but you are no closer to getting your foot in the door than unqualified school leavers with no experience either. This is by all accounts frustrating. The fact of the matter is that in this modern era of the globalisation and the free market etc if you want to get a good job then you have now got global competition to deal with as well. One thing that universities know is that education in such a climate is big business and therefore they will do anything to persuade us that we all need a degree, and to counter that one thing that businesses know is that universities do very little to prepare there students for the real world of work, and the graduates are therefore unlikely to be able to (excuse the terminology) "hit the ground running". The fact of the matter is you probably do need a degree to get your foot anywhere near the door of a specialised position these days. You may even need a 2:1 and a masters and on top of that, you may also need 2 to 3 years of experience to qualify you as an employable human being these days which seems a little absurd when you see the amount of "work" that takes place in your average offices but I digress.
The second problem with a lot of "internships" is that they are not even remotely what they claim to be. For example I would say that about 80 percent of the Graphic Design"internships" (and I use that term loosely, hence the quotation marks) that are advertised on Gumtree.com are actually just start ups that cannot afford to pay a private firm to design their company literature. These kinds of deals are often set around the premise of, you come to us and pay your travel upfront and we will re-imberse you (maybe), you bring your own equipment and software with you, you brand the company, design the brochure, build the website, and make everyone tea whilst your at it, 9-5 monday to friday, until your role becomes so legally tenuous that we have to let you go. In exchange you will get work experience and a reference plus a few bits for your portfolio. This actually doesn't even sound quite so bad at first glance until you look at the job descriptions of a lot of entry level roles and the fact that you will be asked to do far less and be paid around 18,000 a year for it. Its then that it starts to seem unfair. This might have more to do with Gumtree than internships in general, but I feel I have made my point about the pitfalls ahead. I believe that you do gain valuable experience, but it is mostly experience in recognising that you are being exploited.
Last of all there is the fact that the unpaid internship often goes on for far too short a period of time for any real employer to see it as proof of your experience in the field. Again this comes down to the fact that legally an unpaid internship in the UK is not supposed to go on for any longer than a month so you are still in that catch 22 position of not having had enough experience. You need realistically a solid year behind you, and the competition for the legitimate, paid, year long kind of internship is frightening! Unless you have the perfect candidate profile including the grades, which looks more like that of a political candidates resume plus the contacts to show for it also, you can pretty much forget it.
but there is hope out there for us all!
The thing is you are going to be selling yourself on your portfolio. As much as it is wonderful to see that you are a conceptual genius that can produce ideas and campaigns to rival big brands like Coca Cola and MTV your day to day work load is not likely to be quite so exciting, so companies want to see that you can do the boring suff too. Your College portfolio will likely showcase all the shiny stuff but what you will learn very fast in the kind of internship that I mentioned before, is how your average freelance job might work out. You will get to know how to run a project from start to finish its its truest meaning and not only that but you be fully responsible for the outcome. This is going to look great in future where employers are concerned.
You will begin to see the inners workings of your average companies marketing department, from the number of employees, to the kinds of deadlines involved, and the level of responsibility that is put into the department.
Then of course there is the fact you will most likely speed up your work rate ten fold in the process (I know that I certainly did). This is something that yet again will put you in good stead with employers.
And last but not least you will also get the chance to figure out all of the non graphic design jobs that are included in being a graphic designer (nobody tells you that stuff whilst your still studying)
By the time you have finished doing a years worth of different internships for different kinds of companies (like I did if thats what you choose to do) you will be a certified pro, and probably ready to reach out into the big wide world of freelancing. Whats more you may well have gained a few great references (if you behaved yourself) and picked up some well needed office politics deflector shields! which really do need to become a real thing very soon. Obviously just like before you will need to be choosy about what goes in your portfolio still but you will also have those boring bits that prove you don't live in fairy land to the real employers, so you are most definitely gaining momentum towards your chosen career for having done one or two internships.