Interns – something needs to be done

Friday, August 14th, 2009

I’m getting more and more angry about the subject of design internships and the bizarre excuses that many in industry and, let’s be honest, education, use to excuse the practice.

Internships, also known as placements, are “opportunities” for graduates to get experience of “real world work” which apparently makes CVs look better and increases your chance of getting a job.

The trouble is, the likelihood of getting a job is much reduced as a fair proportion of work is being done by interns working for free!
Or as Tory MP Philip Hammond recently told a constituent after being asked why he doesn’t pay his own interns: “I would regard it as an abuse of taxpayer funding to pay for something that is available for nothing”1. This, unfortunately is the endless loop we find ourselves in: many people agree that internships are bad, however there are many people wanting to do them, therefore you either stick to your principles and miss out on all that lovely “experience”, or you give in.

Internships strike me as evidence firstly that the design industry doesn’t rate qualifications much, and secondly that it certainly doesn’t think “outsiders” (i.e. design educators) should be the ones to judge who’s good enough to work among its number2. To support the first argument we can point out that the majority of designers don’t have degrees – it’s not a “degree-level position” and many degree-holding designers work at the same level, for the same “salary”, as non-degree holders. In that sense, design is meritocratic – you’re valued on how good you are, not on how qualified you are.
I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is undervaluing graduates. Other sectors don’t do it – law, retail, medicine, architecture, teaching. What sets these apart is that either they recruit graduates in to well-paid jobs with responsibility and then train them, or they require a period of high-level apprenticeship which is highly structured and leads to a well-paid career at the end of it.

The argument that graduates shouldn’t be paid because they are not experienced enough is, quite frankly, one of the most stupid fucking arguments I’ve ever heard a supposedly intelligent person make.
(And yes, I said fucking. It’s unacademic, it’s unprofessional, but it’s how I feel, okay?)
Seriously, think about it for a moment. Try this scenario:

You go to visit your daughter’s school to find out how she’s doing. You chat to the young teacher who’s in charge of her class, and who your daughter absolutely adores. She’s young and you realise you’re getting old for noticing. She talks expertly about your daughter’s progress and clearly takes a lot of interest in her, and you’re grateful. You later go to the head teacher and compliment her on the quality of her staff, making particular mention of your daughter’s class teacher.
“Oh her,” she says. “Yes, if she keeps this up we might start paying her and take her on full time. But only during term. We can’t afford to keep her on during the school holidays”.

This is plainly nonsense. It doesn’t happen. New entrants to teaching are paid a decent salary (it could/should be higher, but let’s not get in to that – the point is, they’re paid a graduate-level salary and given responsibilities. They are also mentored and given time to continue with their development. Indeed, all teachers are. It’s how people stay on top of their game.
But can you imagine if you discovered that schools were employing unpaid interns to do the teaching?

Compare that to design. New entrants are not given responsibilities, they are often not paid (and if they are, it’s often peanuts) and, ultimately, they’re not trusted. Internships or placements are trials. A company that uses them as a way of recruiting new staff is acting in a bizarre manner. It makes little sense.

When I left college at 19 I got a job as a designer/marketing assistant. I hadn’t really wanted to be a designer but this was all I could get. So I effectively taught myself on the job, having gained a bit of experience with Pagemaker at college. Three days after joining the company, because of the oddities of their pay cycle, I received a payslip for three weeks’ salary. I’d only just started, and I wasn’t even up to speed. I didn’t even know how to use the phone system, or have my own desk. Yet there I was with more money than I’d ever had before. Because I was – get this – working for them. Giving them my time in return for money. They didn’t say “hey, you’re new. We’re effectively giving you our time so really, you owe us money. So how about we just don’t pay you and call it quits?”

Which is interesting because that’s exactly how internships work.

And you know how the company knew they wanted me to work for them and not someone else? They interviewed me. Twice. They looked at my work, they asked me questions about myself. They decided I was worth a chance and knew, as I did, that if it didn’t work out, either of us could say “thanks but no thanks” and I’d be on my way.
Yes, employing someone is risky, yes it requires time and effort on the part of the employer but you know what? That’s part of running a business. Building a team, nurturing it, valuing it.

I’m going to come back to this issue as there’s much more to say but let me end this first instalment with a pointer to Seth Godin’s blog where he talks about free work versus internships.
Like me he doesn’t like internships for some of the same reasons. “Most of the time, the employer thinks he’s doing the intern a favor, but he doesn’t trust the interns to do any actual thoughtful, intelligent work worth talking about.”

He loses me with the next bit: “And to be fair, most of the time the interns are busy hiding, not grabbing responsibility but instead acting like they’re in school, avoiding hard work and trying to get an A.”

I disagree with this assessment because an internship generally is not carried out as part of a course, it’s a prelude to employment. I think he’s mixing things up a bit here. Genuine work placements, part of a course, are rare. They shouldn’t be, but it’s not for want of trying. Many of the ones I know of are just a couple of weeks’ “work experience” but a truly educational placement should be well-structured, include shadowing, not working, and be assessed. Which means the host has to be heavily involved in planning, implementing and evaluating it. And if that were the case, then anyone “trying to get an A” wouldn’t do it by “avoiding hard work”. For one thing, they shouldn’t be working. That, after all, would be a case of the taxpayer subsidising free labour for the design industry, and in England and Wales, and other countries where students pay fees, it would be a case of the poor bastard literally paying to be “employed”. But really, if Seth’s first point is correct, that many employers don’t trust people on placements, then I really couldn’t blame anyone for not giving 100% in return. You get what you pay for, after all.

But Seth goes on to talk about the concept of “free work” like it’s something else entirely. Now I have long advocated “free work” to my own students but I mean working for non-profits – local groups, charities, schools etc – as a way to give something back to the community and to get something in your portfolio. I would never advocate working for nothing for a company that can not only pay you, but is getting paid themselves. Seth seems to excuse it by its networking potential or karmic value – but you can network without selling your soul. It’s this passage that really caused me to spit out my dummy:

“But you’d be amazed at how many fast-moving companies or influential individuals are all too happy to share credit if it helps the work get done.”

As I twittered to Fergus Bisset, ‘he says companies will “share credit”. Wow! Thanks! Er, why not the money then?”‘
If the argument is that a start-up needs help, and that if they’re successful you will be too fails on a simple logic test: if that start-up is going to be successful you can bet your life they don’t do it by doing free work for people. So why should you?3

And this ultimately boils down to the best argument against internships. I’ll discuss the social impact of internships and the legal implications another time, but let me leave you with this: if the company you are working for is making money from the stuff you produce, they should be paying you. There is, as far as I can see, no reasonable argument against this. To do otherwise is theft, plain and simple. And something needs to be done.

[end of part 1. Coming soon: why internships are unfair and why they are illegal]

Update: as you may see from the comments, as well as Interns Anonymous, you can also discuss internships at The Water Cooler

1For what it’s worth, I made a complaint about Mr Hammond to the Low Pay Commission. Phil Willis MP is, quite rightly, raising the issue on his site and via a press release.

2Easy answer: stop recruiting graduates and start recruting school leavers and run proper apprenticeships! Oh you used to do that. What happened? Oh yes, you “subcontracted” the role to colleges, funded by taxpayers, and saved the money didn’t you? Trebles all round, as Private Eye would say.

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