Slippery Ladder to Success


It is a question that we would all like to know the answer to: who gets the best jobs? This is exactly what reporter Richard Bilton asked in a recent BBC2 documentary that investigated the growing social gap between those who grab the top professional positions and everyone else. Contrary to what we might grow up being taught, it seems that ability and hard work no longer hold the key to career success and who climbs to the top of the professional ladder depends more often than not on wealth and connections.

We are all familiar with the old saying that ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’, but this may be an ever more relevant mantra in today’s competitive job market. To break into elite professions such as law, finance and medicine, work experience is a prerequisite and managing to secure a prestigious internship is all a matter of networking. Coming from a privileged background can give you a significant leg up in the business of making contacts, creating a labour structure that is based on ‘birth not worth’. The BBC’s documentary presents us with the bleak but perhaps unsurprising statistics that three out of four judges, one in two senior civil servants and one in three politicians were privately educated, a start in life that set them on course for a climb to the top.

Perhaps more shocking, however, is the exploitative internship practice that the programme exposes. Unpaid work experience is a fact of life and a rung on the ladder to success that we are all willing to accept, but to secure a job in one of the more sought-after industries you may now have to put up with months and sometimes even years of unpaid labour just to get a foot in the door. One of the young people featured in the documentary had completed four separate journalism internships at national publications and gained a total of 32 by-lines without earning a penny – or getting the end reward of a job. Meanwhile these companies made money off the back of his hard work without a qualm.

So widespread is the intern practice that whole businesses have sprung up with the sole purpose of finding internships for young people entering the job market. A quick glance at some of these websites reveals a range of typically three month placements, most of which only pay travel expenses if you are lucky, while paid opportunities are rare. Many graduates are unable to take on such internships due to the financial implications of working for free for weeks on end, restricting access to those who have the wealth to support lengthy unpaid placements. For those fortunate few competition is stiff, with Saatchi & Saatchi, for example, interviewing 6,000 applicants last year for a mere ten places on their scholarship programme, of which only a lucky few will get a job at the end of it all.

The newest craze is internship auctioning, an imported practice from the US that restricts access even further to those who are not only willing to work for free but who are able to pay for the opportunity of unpaid labour. At fundraising events various high-profile work experience opportunities are sold to the highest bidder, usually wealthy parents looking to provide their offspring with elite internships.

Even politicians are beginning to get in on the act, with the Mail on Sunday reporting that the Conservative Party auctioned off numerous work experience placements at a recent fundraiser. If this evidence is anything to go by, the government are unlikely to enforce changes to the internship system any time soon despite the recommendations of Alan Milburn, former Labour cabinet minister and current social mobility adviser to the coalition, whose 2009 report ‘Unleashing Aspirations’ called for the implementation of fairer internship practices.

As long as graduates are willing to work for free with the distant, tantalising possibility of a job at the top nothing is going to change. For those of us who cannot purchase opportunities at auction, the key is networking, networking and more networking. This elusive skill is now considered so important that the University of Liverpool has even begun teaching it as part of their careers programme, with other educational institutions likely to follow suit. For those wanting to reach the highest rungs of the career ladder, it seems that it really is all about not what you know but who you know.


Discussion1 Comment

  1. avatar

    Did you hear about the writer who worked unpaid for the Independent full-time for 3 months? He wasn’t paid and the paper wouldn’t let him freelance or do anything after his 3 months.

    On another note, Catherine, I’m a HUGE fan of your articles- keep them coming! 🙂 X

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