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The perils of being an 'intern' in a modern world

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Internships might seem appealing to younger people entering the workforce, but to the older generation, life can feel like one big internship, writes Kare Godsell.

AN INTERN is someone who does work of commercial value for no payment. The reward for the intern is work experience, a good entry on their CV and a foot in the door of a potential employer. Questionable when you are young, patently insane when you are my age.

Currently, I intern for a number of multinational companies including a bank, a telco, a couple of insurance companies, a super fund and a couple of utilities. My duties are pretty simple but they are time-consuming. I do the bulk of the admin and accounting for one client, myself and I mostly work from home. Sometimes I have to go to the workplace because it can be quicker to drive there, park, wait, ask my question and discuss what to do next than phone in (can be hours) or email (can be days).

All these institutions are trying to encourage me to go paperless. This is really good of them because it saves trees, apparently. I am not aware of how many or where they are. It also means that they do not have to buy paper or stamps or have anyone on staff to put things in envelopes and post them. So it’s a big win for them. I imagine they still have to have big printers and photocopiers because everyone who still has a paid job there will need access to them in order to print out material from the institutions for which they, in turn, intern. 

It is worth noting that if you print out material for a government department, they require a high standard of printing. I found this out when renewing my passport. The forms I printed out on my admittedly very crummy and cheap printer from Officeworks were rejected and I had to go back, ironically to Officeworks, with a jump drive and have them professionally printed out in order to meet government standards.

The post office no longer has forms available for passport renewals, you have to download them. There was another time when I was required to print out a bar code at home and the post office nearly sent me away again but when I showed them a photo of the bar code on my phone and suggested they could use that, they decided the one I had printed out wasn’t that bad after all and indeed it scanned okay. So I guess I also intern for Australia Post.  

I intern for our local council, too. Recently, we organised a hard rubbish collection which we now do directly with the sub-contractors but the Council still requires that we download and print out a form from their website to display with the rubbish. It was red. Very jaunty. A whole A4 sheet, the few words on it and the permit number were reversed out and read as white, otherwise, it was red.

It used up all the red ink in my printer so I had to replace the colour cartridge because if you are out of any one colour, the printer will not proceed. Those colour cartridges are very expensive. Now that I know that, I will be writing out the permit number by hand, maybe in red, next time we organise a collection. The big printing machine at the Council probably does it quickly and easily but in the homes of the elderly, the equipment is not really up to scratch. The printers are not too flash, either.

As an intern, I am not close to management so I don’t know how to suggest things to them. If they actually cared about us interns, they might consider creating the documents that we need to print out in black and white, including the logos, with a button that would set the material to an A4 sheet. It is very annoying to print out bank transactions over a date range and find that the single page you see on screen requires two pieces of A4 paper because the last two transactions don’t fit on the physical page. 

I have a way around this — I turn off the “fit to width” option and print out at 60 per cent size. That way, you do get your one page on screen on one piece of paper. If this sounds picky, think of all those extra trees that would die because a month of bank transactions in our house usually takes five on-screen pages and so ten pieces of paper at full size.

If the bank were to do it on their printer, they would do what I cannot do at home — print double-sided and make a screen page of information fit on a piece of paper at a reasonable type size. But they do not want to do that anymore. They want to save trees by making me not save them, or something. Who knows? As I said, I am not close to management.

I don’t intern for any think tanks but if I did and could get close to management, I would be suggesting they give a bit of thought to the overall cost to the economy of all this interning. I see the theoretical benefit to the shareholder of outsourcing the administration to the customer but in practice, the benefit is not so clear cut. If all the big companies do this and divest themselves of a number of administration staff, the remaining staff will have to intern for all the other companies of which they themselves are customers. 

Amongst younger workers, there may not be quite so much printing out but there will still be logging on, changing passwords, comparing the costs of the various products on offer, deciding which of the available options (there are always options) will be most suitable for their particular circumstances — it all takes time, it all takes attention.    

It seems the more stridently corporations insist they are acting for the benefit of their customers, often describing them as friends or even partners, the less thought they give to the impact their actions will have on them. The words you do not want to see on any communication from a corporation are “to make life easier for you, the customer”. Those words are a rock-solid guarantee that your duties as an intern are about to increase.

Kare Godsell is a seriously over-worked retiree.

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