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MY PROBLEM WITH UNPAID INTERNSHIPS

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I remember being at University and being told that an internship was something that everyone would have to do at some stage, ideally while we were all studying. I relished the idea of going into an actual design studio and getting my hands on some real work. My problem was, in the small city of Wollongong, internships were few and far between. Nonetheless, I networked my tchucas off at a Semi Permanent conference and connected with a guy that worked out at the same gym I did and landed myself two weeks of interning at AHM with Mark Broadhurst, who was head designer there.

Now I know what you’re thinking, right so she did the internship and is a bit bitter about the experience. That couldn’t be further from the truth – the week of interning that I did with AHM absolutely opened the door to me getting my first “grown up” full time position, and without that experience I would have had very little to show in my portfolio other than student work. Everyone needs work experience, and I for one have been a huge advocate since of approaching anyone and everyone to get your foot in the door. Where I take issue is when the internship overtakes the one or two month mark with the same employer – or in a rare case with a co-worker of mine, over a year of interning, unpaid. Its at that stage, that I believe employers are completely violating minimum wage, and instead taking advantage of those desperate to start their careers.

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Let me talk about a bit of a definition here – there is a fairly major difference in my experience between a Junior and an Intern. An intern is typically unpaid, brought in because they have approached the agency or company to do some work. Rarely, agencies will advertise for an intern, but either way the internship can last anywhere from a week to a year (the longest internship I’ve personally heard of). Generally, interns don’t have a job description, and as such have no expectations or posts to be measured against.

A junior however, is an employee of the company or agency, who is designed to be nurtured, trained and moved up through the ranks of the company. They are given a salary, superannuation contributions, education on the way the business runs and a job description, allowing them to know what is and isn’t expected of them. They have reviews and standards to be met, and as such have firm experience to be measured against for their next position. They have a rung on the ladder that is clearly defined.

Whether on the agency or client side, the major issue that I have with internships is centered around devaluation. By working long hours, for extended periods for very little or no pay, you not only devalue the work of graduates and students; you also devalue the work of the department Junior. Instead of giving someone their first job, you choose to hire someone who will do anything for a job, or the cheapest (read: Free) Labour that you can find. What does this do to the self esteem of a junior designer, architect, lawyer etc. who has just invested a heap of time and money in themselves to get their qualification, only to be told that they aren’t “worth” being employed? This means that companies are less and less inclined to hire juniors in their departments, and thus are less interested in investing and educating new staff members.

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Interns (in my experience) aren’t invested in – they aren’t taught new skills, encouraged to attend conferences or client meetings because they’re “just an intern” – so what is their purpose? To churn and burn through work? To be the office lackey, relegated to delivering coffee and doing the work that no one else wants to do? Their contributions aren’t recognized and they are expected to work just as hard (if not harder) than other staff members. Particularly on the agency side, we see interns working late hours, constantly staying back because they feel they “should” to give themselves the best opportunity of “winning” the job – but what if the job isn’t available in the first place?

As a business decision, I really do see the sense in having interns – while they might be considered “time consuming” with the effort it takes to bring them up to speed with the idea of the work force, they are a cheap way to get extra hands on deck for a big project, and as I spoke about earlier, it’s a way to provide a service back to the community – because everyone does need that first step. However, at what stage do morals and general ethics come into question? We accept as future employees that “Intern” on a resume has less value and weight than “Junior” or employee of any kind, but we maintain the façade that providing someone with a long term, unpaid “internship” is doing them a favour. The best an intern can hope for is to be employed in a junior position, which could be unreasonable for their age, or time in studio.

There has been a big push back on internships across the world, with the Sydney Morning Herald this week publishing an article on Australia apparently going the same way. Their argument is that (some) interns are being put under extreme circumstances and are entitled to legal action against their employers – I would be inclined to agree, based on the case studies presented. However, employers and interns are completely caught between a rock (their morals) and a hard place (their wallets) – interns need the experience, and in many industries (especially design) doing an internship is almost expected, and employers use that to their advantage. To reach this end, many interns are working back to back shifts between a design agency and a hospitality job to make ends meet, or moving back in with their parents (Im not going to talk about the economic impacts of that, I’m not qualified in that area!). In the meantime, employers aren’t hiring juniors and giving fresh graduates an “honest go”, and running interns back to back to keep their marketing department or studio functioning.

But at what stage do you, as a junior designer, have enough confidence in your own work to know that the work you are doing is worth being paid for? At what stage as a business owner, do you look at your team and think, without this unpaid intern my team wouldn’t be able to function? Ideally, I would suggest that anyone who has been working in your team for longer than a month is probably entitled to being a paid employee, and if you cant manage that in your books, then see how you can manage without them – I think you will find the decision easier than you think.

I would love to know what you think on the topic – were you an intern once, and feel that the experience was one you wouldnt change, or one that has had a serious impact on you? Either way, share it with me on Pinterest, Facebook or Twitter!

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Em Designs is a service dedicated to giving brands a wholistic marketing solution. Everything from branding and design, to online presence, marketing consultancy and promotional pieces. From large businesses to small, to individuals in search of the right visual presentation of an idea or event; Em Designs will have the solution suited specifically to your needs. For more information on my business, please visit the website For quotes, please email emma.wright@live.com.au

One thought on “MY PROBLEM WITH UNPAID INTERNSHIPS”

  1. Pingback: MY TOP TIPS FOR TIME MANAGEMENT | EM DESIGNS BLOG

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