In hindsight, my first experience of the word ‘internship’ was likely similar to that of many young people today. A friend who had recently introduced me to independent magazines told me he had secured an internship with Dazed & Confused. Dazed & Confused? London? That’s pretty cool, I thought.
For a short, yet sweet amount of time, internships seemed like some glorious arrangement whereby you could swagger into your idealised place of work, make a good impression, and soon enough, find yourself on the payroll. The bubble burst quite quickly, of course; the small matter of finding some kind of low cost or free accommodation, and some other means of income meant that engineering a situation where I would be able to take on such a role would be a challenge in itself.
Still, with an education in Sociology, a CV consisting primarily of bar work and a year or so running a blog as my ‘qualifications’, an internship seemed the only way to break in to the world of magazine publishing. To my surprise, my break came in the form of a paid internship in Milan. It was a two-month stint with Domus magazine that just about allowed me to cover rent and living costs. That was it; I was hooked.
On returning to the UK, I moved to London with a grand plan to intern with an indie mag during the day, work bars at night and sleep on as many couches as my limited natural charm and scattered friendship group would allow. Seven months later, having had a brilliant time with Boat Magazine, I was struck by the amount of people I’d met who seemed to be perpetually on the internship merry-go-round.
Something seemed troubling about young people; often lavishly talented, desperately trying to work for free in order to prove that their work was worth pay. My response, albeit one driven by passion rather than common sense, was to create a magazine—Intern—for and by these very people. The idea would be to represent, promote, and support this unappreciated but relied-upon workforce, proving to the outside world that there was tremendous potential and value in their labour.
We made the decision to pay all of our contributors from the start. To this day, that fee isn’t quite as high as I would like it to be, but I’m proud to say that we’re adamant about paying contributors, despite some of the biggest publications in the world still commissioning a great deal of unpaid work.
Understandably, in these past couple of years, the internship discussion is one of which I’ve seen many angles. A lot of the debate inevitably centres around the issue of pay. Some feel that it’s both illegal and immoral to pay anything less than the minimum wage, while others see internships—and whatever financial arrangement goes with them—as a right of passage.
For me though, that’s an oversimplification of the attitudes and complexities that go on to influence these polarising views. A slightly broader perspective of the various factors at play would greatly improve the popular narratives we experience all too often.
Quality control versus subjectivity
When a job or ‘opportunity’ opens for others to comment on, there is one major hurdle to overcome—or at the very least—to consider. These experiences are, by their nature, subjective. Crucially, there are not one, but two parties to consider: the intern, and their ‘employer’. Both stand to strongly influence each other’s interpretation of the arrangement in situations where clear lines aren’t drawn. These slightly ambiguous roles are commonplace for internships, in part because of legal structures, but more on that later.
So, what for one intern is a really positive position—where great relationships are struck—can be quite a different experience for someone else. Perhaps they work a slightly different way, have a more introverted or extroverted personality; whatever it is, they just don’t click. While both parties have to take some responsibility in these situations, the fact that these things can be neither party’s fault per se, makes establishing a standard of quality for internships incredibly challenging. It’s more likely to have a uniform scheme with a large company who have a long-standing and large-scale internship programme, although not everyone is suited to—or aspires to—work as a small cog in a big machine.
The creative industries are a perfect case study for this, as the popularity of freelance and small independent studio work has risen. According to a study by Upwork published in October 2015, one in three US workers are currently freelancing. It’s clearly a trend that can’t be ignored.
Graphic designers have spoken to me a number of times on the difficulty of finding a workable balance with interns during their day-to-day operations. In designer Kate Moross’s studio, a core team of six or seven are periodically joined by interns—all paid—sometimes to help for a couple of days on a shoot, sometimes for up to three months. “It’s tough though, because each person needs a different amount of mentoring and guidance and you don’t really find that out about someone until you’ve worked with them for a little while,” Kate claims.
It’s worth remembering that internships are—or at least should be—a two-way exchange. Both the intern and the company should benefit, aside from any monetary agreement. As with many things in the professional world though, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach here, and we need to be aware of this.
Paid or unpaid?
As I’ve already mentioned, pay is the most hotly-discussed aspect of the internship debate, and one that suffers from a lack of context. For instance, in the UK, a legal framework is obfuscating, and more problematically, incredibly difficult and expensive to enforce. The semantics of what defines a ‘worker’ are at the crux of the matter. Someone who has set working hours and tasks to complete is technically a worker and is thus entitled to a minimum wage. It would be churlish to suggest that the army of unpaid interns around the UK don’t for the most part fall into that category, but alas, unless every employer in breach was to be reprimanded, it’s highly unlikely that the law would act as a deterrent.
Many employers, when asking me what the situation is regarding internships, claim to have no idea about what the law states on the matter. That’s often despite having already ‘employed’ interns for years. What I find most baffling with this attitude is its apparent short-sightedness. Given the dilemma experienced by Kate Moross, the time and money wasted when your workforce is constantly changing seems a bizarre strategy.
Rather than assigning tasks to unpaid, creative people that could be far better handled by a full-time administration employee, surely the better idea would be to train them up to be an effective part of your team. Less disruption, a far greater use of their skill set and the opportunity to genuinely benefit from the two-way exchange that every good work environment should produce. There are great examples of this attitude out there at the very top of the creative spectrum. Eike König’s studio HORT is one of the most in-demand in the world and every single member of his team began life as a paid intern. It can and does happen.
It’s all very well me attempting to articulate some of the challenges around internships, but that’s no fun. What would be the point in moaning if I’m unprepared to offer some ideas on how we can arrest the trend of poor quality, exploitative, and ill-conceived internships?
While not a given, many young people who find themselves on the internship circuit, particularly in the creative industries are university graduates. Given that most of the world’s countries where these problems seem endemic have tertiary education which charges significant tuition fees, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect tertiary education providers to better prepare students for what awaits.
Few will be enamoured by optional employability programmes and even less will actively approach the designated careers officer, so looking at engaging, contemporary ways to talk to them about the world of work would be a welcome initiative. Some people have a mindset suited to freelance work, others are far happier in an agency setup. Some photographers may be fine art leaning in their practice, but are more comfortable working in the commercial sphere, where the money and work is more of a constant.
The industries have a role to play here as well. By building stronger ties with tertiary education providers, they can benefit from building relationships with students. Perhaps by working with them during workshops, or summer placements, they will have a well-rounded new team member, already familiar with operations upon graduation.
It isn’t fair, though, to hold educational institutions and employers accountable, since workforce attitudes are key to the trends we’ve seen emerge in recent years. The assumption that an internship is the expected and natural bridge between education and work is a fallacy, plain and simple. Furthermore, the notion that working unpaid is the key to proving to people that your work deserves remuneration is one that has become damagingly popularised.
Standing out to prospective employers is about being strategic and creative, rather than collecting unpaid, uninspiring stints with the same agencies and studios as every other student and graduate is trying to get into.