Why We Pay Our Trainees

By Indyana Schneider

2018 has seen a crackdown on unpaid internships. Following information gathered and published by the Sutton Trust earlier this year, articles have been published by The Guardian, BBC, and Telegraph spreading. the. word. Unpaid internships take advantage of those who do them, benefit the privileged, and rule out diverse talent.

Some stats:

  • The number of internships available in the UK has risen by as much as 50% since 2010
  • Around 50-70,000 internships are now offered each year in the UK
  • Between 10-15,000 of these were estimated by the government to be unpaid
    (This is likely underestimated as interns don’t appear on the payroll systems of companies, which makes it v difficult to know the exact number)
  • The cost of a single person doing an unpaid internship in London has been calculated at £1,019 (£827 in Manchester, for reference)

Something isn’t right here.

The big papers are confronting exploitative or unaware corporations, double underlining the simple fact that employers are legally obliged to pay at least the National Minimum Wage to interns. Despite tens of thousands of people continuing to work for free, at the end of 2017 there were no prosecutions in relation to interns and pay. Waters are murky because the definition of an 'employee' is murky – they know they don’t have to come into the office, right? Campaigners are looking to tighten this ‘volunteer loophole’, calling on the government to make it easier to identify how roles should be categorised.

However, unpaid work is legal if the worker: is under 16, a student working as part of their course, or is working for a charity and getting paid ‘expenses’. A lot of arts companies are registered charities (for good reason!), the majority of which offer unpaid internships.
This is worrying.

Like many other sectors, internships are a vital first step into a career as an Arts Professional. These days, the competition for full-time, paid opportunities is so intense that prospective employers expect even entry level candidates to have significant industry experience. A Catch 22 situation leaves many unable to get a job due to lack of experience and unable to gain experience because they cannot afford to work for free. We’re left with a pretty bleak picture of an arts industry unavailable to those without access to external support, damaging the sector and limiting social mobility.
This is backed up by some more stats (CREATE 2015):

  • A survey of more than 2,500 people working in the arts found that 75% had at least one parent in a “middle class” job
  • More than half had at least one parent with a university education
  • 88% of respondents also said that they had worked for free at some point in their careers


A primary concern of OperaUpClose is to diversify the audience and makers of opera, which will result in the most exciting, resilient and relevant art form for the future. Our paid trainee Producer and Director schemes aim to address the above-described cycle of economic discrimination. The trainees are offered valuable experience in a professional producing opera company, mentoring from experienced arts professionals, the opportunity to take responsibility for projects, to make mistakes in a supportive environment, to learn from those mistakes, and to make key contacts in the performing arts industry. Vitally, our trainees are paid at London Living Wage and 100% of our 20+ former trainees are currently employed. If you're an aspiring arts professional, keep a lookout for our trainee openings!

I’m looking forward to a future when all unpaid internships are scrapped completely, where the definition of an 'employee' is crystal clear, and all are paid and valued for their work and time. I'm proud to say we're already doing this here at OperaUpClose.

You can support our traineeship schemes by becoming a Supporter of OperaUpClose or by emailing indyana@operaupclose.com to find out more.