When it comes to helping creative graduates and school leavers understand the world of work, Manchester-based writer Alec Dudson is pretty passionate on the subject.
Frustrated with the issue of unpaid internships and struggling to carve his own career path, Alec decided to launch a print magazine in 2013 to provide a platform for discussion on the subject, whilst giving people a chance to gain valuable, paid experience.
Called Intern magazine, the bi-annual independent print publication has caught the attention of the creative industries worldwide, with names as big as Kate Moross, Adrian Shaughnessy, Jessica Walsh, Mike Perry and Mr Bingo joining the debate.
When Alec isn't managing Intern, he gives talks and runs workshops, often working with some of the UK's leading universities to teach students about independent publishing, freelancing and career paths. We chatted to Alec about unpaid internships, unexpected career paths and doing what you love.
We love Intern magazine and what it stands for. How did it come about?
I’d decided back in 2012 that independent magazines were what I wanted to work in, or at least try to. Having done a couple of internships myself, but found that despite them, I still wasn’t able to secure any paid work in that field, I started playing with the idea of making a magazine of my own.
The idea I kept returning to was creating a publication for and by the people that made up this sub-class of workers, who often, weren’t paid for their time. I thought it would be interesting and powerful to make something that could prove that their work had value, pay them for it and hold its own against magazines that trade work for exposure.
Do you think much has changed since the problem of unpaid internships was highlighted several years ago?
I think the general awareness of unpaid internships is increasing. It’s becoming a harder thing for people to claim no knowledge or understanding of. That said, we’re still in a situation where precarious work is pretty rife. There are companies and individuals who act responsibly and positively when it comes to recruitment. Plenty don’t. As such, I still feel that we have a reason to keep publishing and to help young people make better decisions about their careers.
What can school leavers or graduates do ensure they don't get taken advantage of?
I think that the biggest thing to avoid is the assumption that an unpaid internship is the only option. In Intern magazine we try to provide a balanced and varied discussion which shows that there are plenty of interesting ways to get started.
But competition is fierce. Particularly in major cities in London. Is there anything else you think people can do to get their foot in the door?
Think outside the box. You get out what you put in, even though the payoff is rarely instant. Put in the groundwork as soon as you can, make sure you’re meeting people who work in the industry and speciality that you aspire and when it’s the time to make your move, stand out by doing something that shows off your skills and interests in a clever way.
The theme for the latest issue is career paths. Tell us more...
Each issue we try to find a theme from the ideas sent to us during our open submissions window. This time around, we noticed that adaptability, doing work that you love and finding unexpected careers all stood out. As such, what we’re exploring this time is the broad range of career paths that you can follow or carve out for yourself. We don’t want that choice to be daunting for our readers. It always was for me personally, so I want to remove that stigma and instead leave people feeling confident and empowered to go out and make the career that’s right for them.
You're obviously passionate about helping young creatives to get on the career ladder. What tips can you offer to help them get there?
I guess it’s similar to the advice for getting your foot in the door. I’ll quote Liv Siddall who Andrew Bennett interviews on the issue: 'Speak to as many people as possible who already do what you want to do. You wouldn’t build something from IKEA without the instructions, so why would you enter into something as big as your career without garnering as much information about it as possible before you leap?'. That’s something everyone can and should do. Even if your investigation teaches you that you’re not actually interested in that line of work, you’ve learned something valuable.
Do you think young people are prepared for the working world?
I think it’s always going to be a bit of a shock to the system, there are so many elements of the taught environment that you come to take for granted without realising. Probably the biggest one for creative students is the studio environment and community that goes with it. That support structure is a massive part of the university experience and it can leave a real void for many. I’d simply advise young people to make the most of whatever resources they have or can get access to. There’s support out there, so be sure to take advantage.
Do you think they're still stuck on traditional career paths? And are perhaps surprised by alternative routes?
I think that often. Their parents are very much from a generation where traditional career paths were the norm, the same for their teachers. That’s likely why they’re still a little surprised by the way the industry actually operates. It’s also why its so important to go out there and speak to people working in a given environment in order to get an understanding of it.
What more can be done by schools and universities to get youngsters thinking more about their own career paths?
A recent government white paper has highlighted employability as a big area for development within education, so on the positive side, there will be investment in that over the next couple of years. The institutions need to ensure that money is spent wisely though, and in my opinion should develop strategies tailored to each course which involves collaboration with local industry.
You do a lot of talks and workshops at schools and universities. Often around the topic of employability. What has been the feedback?
From institutions and students, the feedback has been great. When we’re tackling employability, my approach is to ensure that first and foremost, what I’m delivering is relatable. In the same way that the publication connects with young people by making sure that the content is produced by their peers, I employ a similar tactic. I also listen to students, make a note of what they respond well to and refine or ditch the elements that don’t.
Are there any examples of young people you've helped? Tell us more
I don’t like us to take credit for people’s successes. We’re just there to help them on their path. If they’ve been part of the magazine, at the very least, they’ve been proactive enough to get in touch and to create some brilliant content for us.
Many of our contributors now have full-time paid positions in the industries or successful freelance careers working with major clients. The likes of Paul Phung, Anne Quito, Phoebe Kiely, Luke Evans and Alice Tye are making a name for themselves, I’m just delighted that Intern has been part of their, and all of our other contributor’s journey to date.
What about your own career path? How did you get here
I studied Sociology to Masters level and then spent almost two years working in bars. In that time I ran a blog with a few friends. Having initially got involved so that I had somewhere to publish my photography, I became more drawn to publishing other people’s work.
It wasn’t until one of the guys, who I also worked with at the bar brought in a copy of Boat Magazine for me to borrow that I discovered independent magazines. Once I did, for the first time, I felt like trying to forge myself a career. Internships were my only route in – so it seemed, the rest is history.
You're very much creating your own brand and multiple revenue streams. It's how they're saying we should all strive to be, under the threat of increased job automation. Have you carved this path consciously?
In parts, it's been conscious. I was aware going into the project that I wasn’t going to be making enough money from the magazine alone to sustain both it and me, so quite soon had ideas for ways we could expand what we do.
Other elements have emerged as we’ve gone on. We’re about to release a few more products in the store and have plenty of plans for the new year. While job automation is an influence, most of these things are just efforts to make Intern slowly grow into the platform and brand that I believe it can be.
"Understanding the market as best as you can and ensuring that your concept is strong are both vital."
It takes quite some guts and determination to run a magazine, particularly a printed one. What are your secrets to successful indie publishing?
Knowing a little about the industry before launching was a huge help. It meant that I wasn’t under any illusions as to how hard it was going to be. As a result, I’ve been able to weather a few inevitable storms, because they were planned for. Understanding the market as best as you can and ensuring that your concept is strong are both vital.
How have you been able to get the Intern name out there? What have marketing tricks helped?
I think a good deal of it comes back to the concept and it being purpose driven. People being able to feel a familiarity and empathy towards the cause have been a major factor in the project catching on.
We’re always trying to maximise our impact with very little budget, so experimenting with social media strategy is important. Events are a great way to fortify our readers’ connection with the brand, so we’re busy behind the scenes planning more of those for the new year.
What has been the response from the creative industries?
Generally good. There will always be those who shy away from the conversation, but I’m delighted with some of the industry figures who have offered their insight and expertise to the project so far. Names like Kate Moross, Adrian Shaughnessy, Jessica Walsh, Mike Perry, Mr Bingo, Eike König, Olivia Bee, Liv Siddall and James Victore set an example to their peers by engaging in the debate, so I hope there will be plenty more to follow.
You also run courses on freelancing. Are youngsters often surprised that this is a route they can take?
I think it’s a career that’s being talked about more, certainly in education. What I’m finding is that it’s really important to communicate that while it’s a lifestyle that suits some, it simply doesn’t others, and that’s fine. That proves to be a weight off the chest of people who don’t want the uncertainty that freelance life brings.
It’s also very important to be frank and truthful about the realities of a freelance career. It’s hard, hard work, but having such control over your creative output can be amazing. It’s entirely down to the individual as to whether that balance works for them.
You're not shy of talks. Any tips on public speaking?
The only way speaking gets easier is by going back out there and doing it again and again. I’ll never forget my first talk, I was incredibly nervous and drank two double whiskeys in an attempt to settle myself.
There have been times when I’ve said daft things, or gone a little unprepared but you have to just do your best and get on with it. The nerves still come from time to time, but adrenaline kicks in and gets you through it. Don’t over complicate things, talk passionately and that always makes for intriguing viewing.
What's been your proudest achievement so far?
That’s a tough one. I always get told off by my partner for not celebrating the high points enough, usually it’s just a ticked box and then I’m trying to solve the next riddle. Last week, I was preparing for a talk and I counted that I’d published 130 young people to date, all of whom I’ve paid. If the magazine folded tomorrow, I’d at least look back on that and feel pretty chuffed.
What can we expect from you next?
All sorts. We’re looking to move away from the idea that we’re a magazine that also has a website, to the idea that we’re a platform, one element of which is a mag. I’m planning on adding a lot more online content soon, I want that to be original, commissioned content so that we’re able to pay more young people to be part of what we do.
There’s also plans for a podcast series, not just any podcast series though, one that’s well researched, beautifully written and is broadcast quality. There’ll be more products, many of which will be collaborations with young creatives and as I mentioned earlier, events up and down the country as we look to build and interact more with our community of readers.
Main Image: Courtesy of Robert Rieger