Work experience matters but doesn’t pay the bills

“The position is unpaid, but we have a toaster, so you can bring in all the bread you like”. WILL RIDGARD on the perilous transition from student journalist seeking work experience to finding full-time professional work

I’ve had plenty of “work”, but never a “job”.

That’s my analysis anyway, since graduating with a NCTJ-accredited 2:1 Sports Journalism Degree with Honours in July 2013.

Work experience is necessary for student sports journalists. But you cannot continue unpaid indefinitely
Work experience is necessary for student sports journalists. But you cannot continue unpaid indefinitely

I had 95p to my name a year after graduating – and that was after spending six freelance months working for Archant’s East Anglian Daily Times and Ipswich Star daily newspapers.

Initially I went for a one-week work experience placement in October 2013. They asked me back for a second week, but with a potential job in sales lined up in London, it was decision time.

I followed my dream, and returned for a second and third week of unpaid experience, before it was decision time for them – cut me off or offer me some paid freelance stuff.

My first paid piece of work was a back-page with Ipswich Town striker Daryl Murphy, following a dire 1-1 home draw with Barnsley on a wet Friday evening at Portman Road.

Initially on just a three-day week agreement, I got my teeth stuck in for the next five months – improving my writing style, journalism thought process, and building up my contacts – before on one cold March morning, I received a surprise call into the office.

This was it, I thought. They were going to offer me a full-time job. I was excited.

In fact, they were cutting me off immediately, due to “financial reasons”. I couldn’t believe it.
I felt like I had failed. After the non-league football season finished in April, I was completely done and I scouted around for other work, other opportunities.

A brief spell labouring for my old man sufficed to pay the bills, but journalism seemed a tough nut to crack. I sent dozens of applications online, but heard very little back, which disappointed but didn’t surprise me. I went for an internship at a national newspaper only to get rejected for “not having enough experience”.

Another internship opportunity replied to me saying “the position is unpaid, but we have a toaster, so you can bring in all the bread you like”. It was in London, I lived in Suffolk. I never went for that position.

As far as I was concerned, I’d done my time of this “unpaid work experience” malarkey. There gets to a certain point where you cannot work for nothing any more.

Don’t get me wrong, it is something youngsters and graduates have to do – especially in the competitive field of sports journalism, and I gained invaluable insight, confidence, knowledge, and contacts during my time at Match magazine and at Queens Park Rangers (where I was a SoccerSight matchday commentator – providing commentary to visually-impaired fans).

But my advice would be only to do this “experience” thing until a certain point, and provided that it is giving you with something and will look good on your CV.

I had a couple of interviews for full-time positions, and came close, but in July and August, I was back at the EADT, covering the local tennis tournaments.

I didn’t mind it. I like tennis. I caught a tan, and I got to know some local links who I formed a bond with to produce future pieces – what journalism is all about.

You can have all the qualifications you like and 120 words per minute shorthand, but if you can’t talk to people and build connections, how do you expect to get stories?

With my foot creeping back in the EADT door, I was offered Thursday and Sunday shifts again. Not ideal, but better than nothing.

One of the key things in journalism is not to say “No”. I was determined not to be “cut” again. With my journalism skills improving, those initial two days in August turned to five or six a week come May in a 2014-2015 football season which, for me, was one to remember.

A year on after that first day of “experience” at the EADT, I made my Football League print debut, covering Colchester United v Fleetwood Town as the paper’s main writer at the Weston Homes Community Stadium.

It was a proud moment, and I loved it.

I was pulling out non-league exclusives on a consistent basis, people were trusting and engaging with me, and I was producing clear, precise copy that everyone seemed to enjoy.

I broadened my skills by being trusted to sub, write my own headlines, put pages together, fit pictures in, and use the company’s social media networks. I came up with an idea to run a weekly column named “Park Life” – looking at the local grassroots football game.

But once the football season had finished, I was only likely to be working two or three day weeks with the Anglian.

A summer trip to America would be refreshing and a great experience (there’s that word again). The plan was still to find a full-time role somewhere, and with nearly 18 months of consistent professional work on my CV – which also included occasional work for BBC Radio Suffolk and The Non-League Paper – I was getting noticed by employers and was even receiving replies on job applications, where previously I had been ignored.

I was astounded that I was getting interviews for some of the positions I applied for, but I did, and came mightily close, only to fall to the classic “experience” or “local knowledge” reasons given for missing out.

A lot of jobs seem to go internally, and that’s fair enough I guess, but also a complete waste of time for other hopefuls who trek up and down the country specially for interviews.

So still with no full-time role, I headed out to the Virginia in June, with ambitions of just enjoying my time out there for a couple of months before coming back refreshed and roaring to go for the 2015-2016 football season.

It turned out to be an opportunity I won’t forget. I ended up extending my stay until the last possible return date of my 90-day visa. I absolutely loved it, and am now due to return with guaranteed work, for a predominantly PR and social media role for a sports company.

Mistakes? I’ve made loads. Some major, mostly minor, but everyone makes them.You can’t let them bother you though, and you move on… It is, after all, all experience.

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