The Internship Epidemic

It is the responsibility of design professionals, teachers and school administrators to value the next generation of designers so that the profession is respected, appreciated and thrives. Unpaid internships won't accomplish that.

The April 2, 2011 New York Times op-ed by Ross Perlin describes how schools are encouraging an exploitive trend in unpaid internships offered by businesses and corporations.

Although a somewhat recent type of “job” offering in other professions, unpaid internships are not new to the graphic design field. In fact, they’ve been a regular practice in this profession for years, especially at non-profit organizations. Students and graduates are now presented with internship opportunities more often than they are entry-level jobs. They’re asked to work for nothing or next to it in exchange for “gaining experience”. There are cases where interns work full time for no pay for a year or two in hope of being hired by that company. Businesses seeking low- or no-cost design will contact a school to recommend students or recent grads with no intention of paying them for their work. A casual perusal of design jobs on Craigslist reveals compensations offered in the form of lunch or gas money. One web site states that internships are necessary for finding design jobs: Internships are an essential part of attaining a job in graphic design. Get started on your career as a graphic designer with the internship of your dreams.

The problems with schools and businesses encouraging unpaid internships are glaring. Among them are these:

  1. Internships are offered in place of paid entry-level positions and viewed as a legitimate means of obtaining cheap or no-cost labor.
  2. Internships are being promoted as a necessary stepping stone to a real job.
  3. Many internships are jobs in disguise, requiring skill sets and experience that should be compensated for. Interns are asked to do the job of a regular employee, thereby taking the position that should be held by a regular employee.
  4. Interns are not on the payroll and are not protected like regular employees.
  5. Interns are often assigned clerical or gopher tasks which do not directly relate to their studies.
  6. Interns are not valued by the company or the school in terms of time, money and effort spent.
  7. The practice of unpaid internships contradicts the stated purpose of most colleges and universities.

Unpaid internships can make sense for students if they are supervised and evaluated, and if the student receives real course credit (a grade and credit hours) from the school. Additionally, the student, school and business should determine specific goals and objectives for the intern up front (what will be accomplished by the intern and how it will be measured) and grade the student accordingly, like a regular class, upon completion. The company should provide the student with a letter of recommendation upon leaving the internship. The student should have the opportunity to create bona fide work for their portfolio.

Instead of exploiting students, colleges and universities should encourage paid internships commensurate to at least minimum wage, and, if internships are required, they should be required the same as elective coursework with no additional tuition charged. Also an option: a stipend paid at the end of a short-duration internship (6-8 weeks). Since the intern is not a regular employee, the company should provide a 1099.

According to Perlin, many schools are charging students additional tuition or fees for the privilege of working for free but are not following through with appropriate oversight, evaluation or even credit hours. This is a practice he claims precludes students who are not as well off because they cannot afford to pay the extra fees for the privilege of being placed in an internship.

Whether internships are necessary in order to break in to the design field is highly debatable, since designers usually get work based on the strength of their portfolio. An internship does not guarantee a student will be hired into a regular position. Therefore the practice cannot be described as being necessary for finding a job.

Ideally, internships should be opportunities for students to gain practical on-the-job knowledge and should last no longer than a quarter or semester’s duration. Students should expect to gain the promised valuable work experience while shadowing a senior designer, art director or creative director who, along with the school, will evaluate the student at the end of the internship and provide an appropriate grade and credit hours. The internship should been regarded as a “classroom” situation. Graduates should receive the monetary compensation due any entry-level hiree. Additionally, whether student or graduate, the intern should receive appropriate creative credit if the work performed was part of an actual design project.

It is the responsibility of design professionals, teachers and school administrators to value the next generation of designers so that the profession is respected, appreciated and upheld. Unpaid internships won’t accomplish this.


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