University of British Columbia (Courtney)



Aug '08 - May '09

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    Internships... experience or exploitation

    image GSW tower, SHA, foto_flickr

    The waning light of summer... today is the official FIRST DAY OF CLASSES at UBC SALA. However, I am still in Berlin, so i thought i'd share some recent thoughts and feelings about internships after my second architecture job ever. I have some pretty mixed feelings about this whole “student intern” gig… waffling somewhere between education and exploitation…

    Last year, I was so eager to get out there and work, to go abroad, etc. and was in a position to make ends meet without making tons of money in the summer (thanks to American sized students loans for a Canadian sized tuition bill), and somehow managed to convinced CS to join me in both Rotterdam 2007 and Berlin 2008 even though he is quite seriously broke as a joke. But since last year I was applying under my school’s co-op program they had some reservations about accepting a 600E stipend as “market value remuneration for the work performed.” And I had to convince them to accept this “cultural difference” and that one could actually survive on 600E p/month in Rotterdam, etc. I was so excited to get some EXPERIENCE. But the second time around in Berlin, I’m not so sure, maybe it’s the exposure to larger offices with a lot of fat on them and a high turnover that is leaving a bad taste in my mouth, who knows.

    Where is this coming from… basically I got into a small argument with one of the architects in my office the other night at our big “Abschieds” party [oh the sangria] telling him that students are people too, and have certain expectations for learning during an internship, especially if one is making very little money. At the very least, that one of the following should be fulfilled by an internship (or any work really): That it is well paying, interesting and challenging, morally and/or emotionally rewarding.

    Holocaust Memorial, Eisenman Archietcts, foto_CS

    I’m interested to hear about some other people’s experiences working this summer and what they think about offices like Eisenman who don’t pay interns at all. His response to this “snarky” question can be found here... or UN Studio who pay a minimum government stipend of something like 275Euros p/month and recently ran a RealWorld UNStudio sort of call for interns, or frankly any European firm, famous or not paying btwn 500 and 1000 Euros p/month, to big corporate firms in North America who pay $15-20 p/hr. And, yeah, yeah, yeah, of course its not all about the money, but I really think there needs to be a balance, give and take on the part of both parties, the student and the office. Eisenman says unpaid internships are par for the course in the arts, and while he is right; I both worked as an unpaid studio assistant as well as employed unpaid interns in my previous non-profit arts life. His architecture office is hardly the same as some non-profit film-centre. An architecture office is a for-profit business and he is essentially asking either the Government or the student’s family to subsidize his practice!

    Quick survey, some friends from school were getting job offers in NYC for unpaid internships, a German friend is going to work for a small NY office for $700 per month, other UBC classmates worked for offices in Vancouver making upwards of $15 p/hr. CS and I visited a friend interning in London making 2500L p/month who just about choked on his ale when he heard we were making 600E “You’re telling me you took a job for 600E per month?!?” A friend at Sanaa who showed up on her first day and didn't go home for a week (i am sure we all know these stories, and would love to believe they are some kind of Architecture Urban Legend) Another friend in Stuttgart is making 1200E p/month and struggling to make ends meet, while another turned down unpaid work in Rome because she couldn’t afford to pay for school.

    I’m looking less for a clear explanation of culture or professional politics, I understand there are vast differences in the cost of education in different countries, as well as government funding, etc. I struggle more to define for myself what feels right, how I would want to run an office, and what are the pros and cons of different types of work in different types of offices. I’m also not complaining about my job, I’ve learned lots, met some great people, and had fun, if very different, experiences at both offices I’ve worked for.



    • Danny Wills
      Sep 2, 08 8:09 am

      Unpaid internships favors those with a family background that can support their "learning experiences." Sometimes I find that unfair to most other students in not as fancy financial situations. I worked this summer part time at a non-profit gallery, didn't get paid, then worked part time at a normal job so I could support myself in NY. The only way, I told myself, that I'm working for free, is if they are working for free as well. It may be harder to find.. but there are firms that do do good work, AND pay their interns. If people keep working for free, Eisenman's never going to stop doing it. Maybe we should start an architecture student labor union...

      Courtney Healey
      Sep 2, 08 8:33 am

      Hey, Danny, i like the labor union idea... definitely... i think this is sort of what school's like mine are trying to do when they act as middlemen between students and firms to make sure students are both learning and earning and not just slave labour, yes... i wonder if there's a way to run some sort of lifecycle analysis to see the real cost of an unpaid internship... "learning experiences" are great, but working for free is completely unsustainable in the long run... thanks for sharing your alternative experiences... I enjoyed your most recent post and the comments that followed...

      Arnaud M.
      Sep 3, 08 5:33 pm

      The idea of learning and gaining experience while being unpaid is pure bullshit. Generally (at least based on my own experience) firms who do not pay their interns do not give a crap about them either (why bother teaching them anything if they do not cost you anything?). To say that you have to work for free to learn anything is pure hypocrisy from both sides of the debate: It is convenient for the firms who get free labor and it "helps" students by putting big names on their resumes. In the end? No one really get anything valuable out of it and even though it doesn't seem to be, it is a lose-lose situation for both parties.
      If there is one thing I learned in the past couple of years is that I'd rather work for a decent unknown firm that pays and treats me well, and cares about teaching me stuff, than a big name, just to have it on my resume. Student often make the mistake to undersell their skill, and it is partly the school's responsibility, because most of them do not include "surviving in the architecture jungle" in their curriculae.

      Sep 4, 08 11:45 am

      I honestly believe that architects need to get their asses in gear and get a union in general ... we are basically trained from day one to expect to be treated like poop, be it as unpaid interns or overworked project architects

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