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The continuing trend of unpaid internships

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  • The continuing trend of unpaid internships

    Not sure if this is already a topic (I used the search function and didn't find anything) but if I am posting in the wrong area let me know!

    So I went to a social media for trade shows seminar yesterday. The seminar was hosted by a trade show display company and featured a social media expert. The speaker seemed knowledgeable, somewhat redundant, but overall the presentation was fine. As the speaker was wrapping up I was filling out the survey which was handed out and I was giving her all great reviews. While wrapping up she was answering a question someone had asked about stock images/vectors and her suggestion was to go the route of hiring and unpaid graphic design intern. Luckily there was a comments section at the end of this survey that I had yet to fill out, so I was sure to give her my two cents about her opinion.

    This infuriates me for two reasons. One, I did an unpaid internship in college and I felt totally taken advantage of and I would never do it again or allow my future children to do it. Two, the demographic of people attending this event were high level business people that were (for the most part) able to make hiring decisions for their respective companies. Since I've graduated I haven't really kept an eye on the internship market but I guess it's still a thing to have graphic design students work at a company for free. I feel like all of the people that attended this event are going to go back now and actively campaign for an unpaid graphic design intern.

    I remember when I was seeking an internship in school it was near impossible to find a paid internship. The only paid internships I remember seeing were provided by the local sports teams and they were only hiring for one intern; needless to say very competitive. Do graphic design students today have no choice but to go the route of unpaid internship? Do these companies really want to cut corners when it comes to their business identity?


  • #2
    The DOL criteria ia pretty specific about this sort of thing.
    Sketching not only helps you work out good ideas, it helps you get past the bad ones.


    • #3
      When looking for an internship, you are looking for a position that has someone to teach you the industry. If all you are doing is work on your own, you are indeed being taken advantage of. The original idea of an internship was to work for someone as an apprentice, learn something in exchange for your hard work, get a real world project or two into your portfolio, learn how to talk to clients, and maybe even write a paper and give a presentation at the end of the semester in your internship seminar class to your peers. And you would receive a grade.

      These days, the design student must absolutely be pro-active in determining whether or not an internship is going to teach them anything. If you don't get to meet the person who is supposed to be teaching you, that is a big red flag. There is no rule that says you have to accept any internship offered.

      The other thing to look out for is ''work for glory''. Doing work for free just for the ''exposure'' is usually not worth it. It is doubly not worth it if, again, you have no chance at a learning opportunity. It is considered freelancing to do work for people. With all the business risks involved in that. If you want to do it fine. But I'd still use a contract of some sort.

      For the record, we pay our interns. They have to be full employees in order to cover them under all of our various insurance policies.


      • kemingMatters
        kemingMatters commented
        Editing a comment
        I read a great reply to ''doing it for the exposure'', it was simply: ''People die from exposure.''

    • #4
      I think unpaid internships are fine when real-world experience is obtained from knowledgeable mentors who actually take the time to work with the interns and teach them the ropes. It's even better when school credit is given.

      There's only so much a student can learn in school in this profession, and an important part of the education is an introduction to the actual workplace. I'm not at all sure why so many students will pay tens of thousands of dollars for a formal design education, then complain about not being paid for a near-essential and free part of that education -- the internship.

      As has already been said, though, it's up to the students to ensure that they're not simply being exploited as free labor. A student needs to seriously consider what will be gained from the internship and make decisions from there. Better still is if the school vets the employers before recommending them to students.

      From an employer's point of view, paying an intern can be a losing proposition. Every now and again, an especially talented and ambitious intern might show up who can actually make a significant contribution. More often an intern is a drain on resources in that the intern isn't yet knowledgeable enough to accomplish much without lots of supervision that takes others away from their jobs.

      There really needs to be a balance between the student getting beneficial, practical experience and the employer getting at least something in return. It can't be a one-way street for either or it just doesn't work.


      • #5
        @B, excellent points!

        I've hired summer and holiday-break interns at minimum wage whether they were just looking for real-world experience or in conjunction with a near-by university as part of their course for credits (which includes a very detailed contract). We never solicit the hiring of interns. They just find us and in many cases want to work for free because they are so hungry to expand their knowledge and skills. It just happens to be our policy that we will pay interns 'something' for their time.

        I would say out of a couple dozen interns I've had over the years, only one didn't work out. A young man seemed to be offended that I would ask him to do pure, repetitive production (I've always thought of this as 'grunt' work--that's how I got my start) because he wanted to jump ahead to what he perceived to be the good stuff in graphic and Web design. He lasted three days. I didn't get to do an exit interview because he just didn't show up on day four-- but he told another artist I was taking advantage of him.

        I've had a few college and high school students who were incredible assets to our firm and so eager to learn and produce that it made 'me' look forward to the work day.

        One of my interns was so sharp that I had him back for two more summers and wrote a recommendation letter for his Master's entrance. After graduation, he went on to do visual effects for DreamWorks and contributed to Life of Pi. I have a picture of him holding his Oscar in a room by the LOP movie banner. He has worked on many projects including an animation movie that's out right now.

        I can't claim that I had anything to do with his advancement, but I know in his time with us, he learned a lot about what it takes to work in this field, interacting with co-workers and doing anything we asked of him, including 'grunt' work. Plus--he had several projects he was able to design and add to his portfolio.

        That's an overview of my experience with interns and this subject.


        • Protagonist
          Protagonist commented
          Editing a comment
          If he worked on Life of Pi I hope he still has a job now. Ang Lee bankrupted the studio behind that film. See "Life After Pi."

      • #6
        Good story MareC. We never look for interns either, but students show up. If one seems especially on the ball, eager, talented and willing to dive it, we'll sometimes pay them a minimum wage and take them on for a few months. It's always worked out really well -- probably because we've been so picky.

        Heading back to the age of cave dwellers when I was in school, I had two internships. One was a paid in-house internship at a big outdoor recreation company. It turned into a part-time job that lasted about a year and a half. The other was unpaid (school credit) at what was then, probably, the best design studio in this part of the country. It lasted about six months. Both situations were absolutely fantastic. I got to do real work, including everything from press checks to working directly with clients to working side-by-side with some of the most talented designers I've ever met.

        The experience, contacts and confidence I gained at both places lead directly to a job after graduation, which, in turn lead to still other jobs. Honestly, I'm pretty sure my work experience while in college was likely the thing that made the difference between me making it in this field and failing.

        It sounds like the original poster had a bad experience with an internship and has, for some reason, generalized them all into being universally bad situations that exploit students for free labor. I'm sure some places do exactly that, but I encourage any student to take internships seriously and do everything possible while still in school to research the possibilities and land one or two of them while still in school. It's getting harder and harder to imagine recent graduates succeeding in this field in today's market without some solid, impressive work experiences and references backing them up to get that all-important first full-time job.


        • #7
          Originally posted by B View Post
          Heading back to the age of cave dwellers when I was in school,
          I think B and I are from the same mesozoic era

          Back in the day, I could not afford to take on an unpaid internship, and in my locale, paid internships were not to be found. So I had to get my beginners experience working in any lower-than-entry-level position that would take me on. While still in school, I worked part-time as a gopher at a small local print shop, sweeping up the trimmings of lino scrap off the floor. My first ''real'' job was ''stat'' guy - running the stat machine for a typesetting shop. I learned a hellava lot there. The guys were gruff but willing to answer this green kids questions and soon I was allowed to strip film and eventually run a heidelberg press. I still miss the smell of ink on paper.

          Not all companies want to bother with training unskilled student interns, paid or unpaid. The return is seldom worth the time invested, so the opportunities for students to get hands-on, real-world learning are few.

          I think there are some students who feel their contribution as an intern is more valuable than it actually is, and on the flip side some companies do indeed take advantage of some student interns. It's up to the individual to seek out the situation that best serves their growth. For some, compensation may be secondary to the experience they gain, for others, not so much.
          Last edited by PanToshi; 01-31-2016, 07:32 AM.
          Sketching not only helps you work out good ideas, it helps you get past the bad ones.


          • #8
            @B and PT: You had me at cave dwellers and lino scrap.

            Throw in some Amberlithh, a Rapidograph, a pica pole and a couple of wrist burns from a hot waxer and we could really get down to business.

            I have to go now. I'm taking my dinosaur out for a stroll.


            • PrintDriver
              PrintDriver commented
              Editing a comment
              Don't forget the really LARGE doggy waste bag!

            • MareC
              MareC commented
              Editing a comment

          • #9
            Originally posted by MareC View Post

            Throw in some Amberlithh...


            • #10
              I think it depends on your location. From where I live, unpaid internships are quite rare. The salary is decent (based on my experience last year) as it is enough to pay for your food and gas per day. Public holidays are also paid. You get to work with experienced people in media industry and different nationalities.There is also a chance to be hired as a full time employee.

              I live in Dubai where there are loads of media companies. Some students from other countries apply here for internship and most of them stay to pursue their careers.

              I also think that it depends on your negotiation skills. Applying for internship is a good practice to tell your future employer how much your time and the quality of your works worth. By being paid as an intern, you will get an idea of how much salary you should accept as a full time employee compared to someone who started with zero.


              • #11
                Eeeee, I don't know if you should expect an intern's wage as being indicative for that of a practicing designer. We pay state minimum wages to interns, mostly because they are a huge time suck. Someone always has to be watching them and answering their questions. Designers get paid more than that. Or they should.


                • livingdead
                  livingdead commented
                  Editing a comment
                  Some small companies here offers salary like they're hiring an intern; and some people accepts it because that salary is actually more than what they will earn from their home countries.

                • PrintDriver
                  PrintDriver commented
                  Editing a comment
                  That happens everywhere. Even here in the US. If a designer feels that they can do no better than minimum wage, then that is what they settle for. It's an employer's market out there for just about everything, and I don't care what the current administration is saying about the uptrending job market, the jobs to be had are low paying and disposable. I'm glad I'm not a graduating student just now because that college debt is not paying off in the short run. The long run, yes, maybe. But not right out of school.

              • #12
                Interns are hard work. They need a computer and babysitting duty. We have had interns here but I'm very selective. They must be in their final year of their degree. I won't take anyone who isn't invested in a bachelors level degree.

                The design school I went to made it mandatory to complete and internship before graduating. Whether it was paid or unpaid was completely the discretion of the student and employer.

                If you're an intern and you're the only "designer" in an office, I'm sorry but that is not a worthwhile internship. You need a mentor like a senior designer and direction. Someone to tell you what you're doing right and wrong. Sitting alone in an office knocking out stock illustrations is not useful training. It's practicing what you already know and probably picking up bad habits along the way.
                It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like "What about lunch?" Winnie the Pooh


                • #13
                  I could only imagine a proper paid or unpaid internship would be beneficial. I basically scored a job processing images and doing some production work for an online outfit and my head instructor signed off on it. It was killer money for the year it lasted but very little growth for me and totally boring. It still looks pretty good on a resume though. Would I have done it for free? Heck no! If I didn't have bills at the time I would have jumped on an opportunity to have a real internship with a firm or agency, free or not. Boo hoo me right? haha
                  Last edited by MumboJum73; 02-11-2016, 05:03 PM.


                  • #14
                    I had to go through numerous unpaid internships when I first graduated and had a few nightmarish experiences including a man-hating, control-freak, manager who had a psychotic obsession with the owner and tried to withhold a measly $100 paycheck from me. It wasn't until that I STOPPED working for free that I started actually getting paying jobs. I realized I was spending my time and energy worrying about everyone else's (unpaid) projects and not my own career. Everyone has the same bullshit story, "work for us for free and well will boost your portfolio and maybe hire you" but research shows they usually don't hire.

                    Internships originated for the medical industry - obviously someone who will one day perform surgery needs to go through years of extensive training before they pick up a scalpel. Unfortunately, many other industries now take advantage of interns and use them as free or cheap labor.

                    There is a criteria for "real" internships I wont list here but you can look them up or read the book "Intern Nation" which covers the issue extensively. Long story short, numerous studies show UNPAID internships do nothing to advance the intern's career. Paid internships do increase the intern's employability by about 50% compared to other college graduates with no PAID internship experience. But UNPAID internships only increase employability by about 3 percent - not worth it in my opinion. With the record breaking costs of college and sky-high student loan debt this only seems to "add insult to injury" but we can all thank the Federal Reserve for that.

                    Good paid design internships are hard to get. I remember I was at "Internship Mixer" a few years ago with a leading studio. I had no idea that I was going to be the only American there. It turned out to be all recent students from China. I'm not xenophobic, I was just surprised, some of them barely spoke English and they all came from the same university in China. They all seemed to know each other and were very cliquey. I kind of felt alienated and ended up not getting the job. I now have a job but no thanks to my internships. I don't even list them on my resume.


                    • #15
                      Originally posted by Protagonist View Post
                      There is a criteria for "real" internships I wont list here but you can look them up or read the book "Intern Nation" which covers the issue extensively. Long story short, numerous studies show UNPAID internships do nothing to advance the intern's career.
                      I've skimmed though that book, and there are certainly good examples of how employers take advantage of unpaid interns. For example, Disney's 8,000 interns flipping hamburgers and mopping floors in the hopes of scoring an unlikely full-time job with Disney is terrible (assuming it's true).

                      There probably ought to be laws and regulations associated with unpaid internships that help curb the abuses. That isn't to say, however, that gaining professional experience as an intern while still in college isn't a good idea. In the absence of those regulations, I think it's really up to the student to go into an internship with eyes wide open to fully assess the risks, advantages and drawbacks associated with the internships.

                      From purely personal, anecdotal experience, most universities in the United States do not teach their design students much of anything about the realities of the real-world profession. Instead, schools focus on their students creating cool stuff, which translates into recent graduates believing that their ability to create cool-looking stuff is the key to a good job. No mention in school is made of the grunt work, the long hours, the business realities, the unsophisticated clients who want junk, the poor starting salaries, and the employers who are far more concerned with bottom-line dollar figures than they are about good design.

                      As a result, students graduate from universities with a false sense of confidence (even arrogance) in the level of their expertise and preparation to enter the workforce when, in reality, they're not at all prepared for what awaits them. An internship at a good agency (in-house or otherwise) working directly under a good senior designer or art director goes a long ways in complementing a student's formal education with the practical education needed to actually make it in a professional settings.

                      These kinds of internships are hard to come by, and not many students will get them. It takes a whole lot of hard work, dedication and willingness to leave one's comfort zone to find them. Then again, most students enrolling in a university design program will not graduate and those who do will likely not be working in the field five years down the road. Graphic design is a very difficult field to break into because there just aren't enough jobs to make room for everyone who wants to be a designer.

                      Personally, I wish the state of the profession was different. I wish that design students could concentrate exclusively on their formal design education and that employers would hire recent design graduates knowing full well that it might take them a year or so to actually bring them up to the point of making productive design contributions to the companies.

                      Unfortunately, that's not the world we live in. Again, from a purely personal and anecdotal perspective of someone who hires designers, it makes no financial sense for us to hire naive recent college graduates with no practical experience when we have dozens of skilled, experienced designers to choose from for every job that comes open. It's gotten to the point that we require a 4-year university degree plus a year or two working in a reputable agency environment to even qualify for the most beginning of jobs. This almost always means that these new designers have school-approved internships under their belts and the work and experience to show that they can immediately jump in and be productive members of our team.

                      There's a whole lot I would change about this profession if I had the power to do so. First on the list would be minimum standards for licensing, like most other professions have. Second would be more rigorous entrance and graduation requirements at university design schools to ensure that only the most talented got into the programs and graduated. Third would be more stringent requirements for design school accreditation necessary for graduates of those programs to meet the initial licensing requirements that are first on my list.

                      Until then (which is unlikely to happen), we're stuck in this stupid system of tens of thousands of designer wannabes wasting their time and money on school and internships pursuing a lucrative career that probably won't materialize. It's an unfortunate situation, but it is what it is. From a realistic, practical perspective, though, it basically means that for now, a successful internship at a good agency while pursuing that 4-year design degree has become an almost essential part of what it takes to land that first job into the profession.






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