I meet with a lot of students in Central PA and Philadelphia. I frequently take part in portfolio reviews with AIGA and with other organizations. Portfolio reviews, in my mind, are extremely important for young designers. I like talking with students and young designers. It’s important to help develop young creatives to think critically about their work and the world around them.
I have been asked before if I offer internships and I don’t. There are several reasons I don’t offer internships with Azrael Group. The main reason I don’t take on interns is that I don’t believe in unpaid internships.
Now, by saying that it looks like I am towing the line with what AIGA believes and stands for. I do believe in AIGA’s stance against unpaid internships and maybe I am towing the line a bit here, but my reasoning for being against unpaid internships goes well beyond just the surface discussion that a lot of people are concerned with.
My own internship experience was not a perfect one. I had several unpaid internships. I was a hungry, maybe a bit desperate, young creative that just want to break from the classroom rhetoric. When I was in college, I was told that I must take an unpaid internship because of accreditation purposes. It was explained to that if I got paid, I couldn’t count that for credit. How they were going to enforce that was beyond my reasoning, but I shrugged my shoulders and went off looking to get an internship. I ended up with several at one time. I divided my time between working as the design intern for Da Vinci Art Alliance in Philadelphia and Benchmark Group Media in Harrisburg. My senior year in college was spent taking Amtrak every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to go to class in Philly, stop by the gallery and work on any posters and marketing for upcoming shows. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I went to Harrisburg and worked on advertisements for Harrisburg Magazine, Lehigh Valley Magazine and a number of other custom publications. I wasn’t paid for any of that. I supplemented my income by taking on freelance work. That freelance work laid the foundations for Azrael Group.
My internships were great because I had great superiors. The creative director I worked under at Benchmark Group Media was a big influence on my career. He didn’t agree with the unpaid internship model as well, but it was out of his hands. So to supplement internship, he and the production manager took a very keen interest in helping me to develop my technical skills and my critical thinking. Fast forward several years later, I became the creative director at Benchmark Group Media and I paid it forward. In fact, on his last day, Derek left me a guide that I still have to this day. This guide was a collection of his own personal observations, maxims he lived by and his thoughts on paying it forward. To my pal Derek Hollister, thank buddy.
I took on a number of interns through my time at BGM, and the dissonance started pretty early on. I gave a lot of my interns a lot of work to do, and with minimal direction and development. I spent a lot of working trying to help develop their skill, their knowledge and their acumen, but differences of opinion about how interns should be handled were raised and the prevailing thought was to treat them like employees with none of the benefits. Looking back on my internship I question if that was my experience or did my immediate superiors just go out of their way to really help make my experience there a great one? All in all, it didn’t sit well with me.
Unfortunately, this hidden workforce virus is more common than I thought. Classmates I had at college told me horror stories of their internships. Things like getting coffee and lunch for account executives, getting dry cleaning for the art directors, and do absolutely no work and not invited to participate in any of the agency projects. Their internship trained them to be amazing hotel staff, it only took four years of art and design classes to get there. That problem though was not local to just Philadelphia (which is bad enough).
Unpaid internships have a lot of ramifications on the workforce. Many times, as in my experience, you become an unpaid employee and you displace people who are looking for actual work. Internships should be an experience in which you gain applicable skills and knowledge that will help you transition from academic life to professional life. They should teaching both specifics and general ideas, not just on the job training so you become just a cog in their wheel. A lot of students will hear the platitude that having an internship will “get your foot in the door” at that company. Sadly this is more often than not true. As an intern, you should be paid for your time, your contribution, and your effort.
As an intern you should be expected to perform at your tasks, but through your internship you should be learning the ins and outs of how the machine works; how the actual day-to-day functions work and how they affect everyone involved. Most colleges don’t have the relationships built with companies and studios to guarantee any sort of solid paying learning experience. It’s a shame, but understandable. It is a massive undertaking to make and maintain those relationships.
Many industries, not just the creative fields, use unpaid interns and cross the line of what is acceptable for them to do. Every industry is different, but the issue of internships going from positive real world experience that could jumpstart your career to an unpaid workforce that has no rights and can live in constant fear.
I don’t have the answers about how to fix the issue in our country. All I can do is help point students to the people and resources that I have had first hand experiences with that can have positive outcomes on their lives. So I don’t offer internships, but when I get big projects I contract a student to help me out. It’s the best of both worlds. I get help on various projects that I am working on and I get someone who wants to be there to work on a great project. They get paid fairly and they get to listen to me talk about professionalism, great work resources and give them contacts in the field to get their books looked at. I think if more people thought along that mentality, then maybe things will get better.