Design practitioners have many options. The diversity of small businesses in design fields allows employees to find work that truly matches their creative and financial goals. But do unpaid interns have choices too?
I recently read an article in Spare Change News on the prevalence of unpaid internships. Although it does not discuss internships vis-à-vis architects, the article goes into great detail on the legalities of unpaid work in the United States. View it here:
I should say that the author of the article is also currently dating me (whasup!) and suggested that I write this post to re-frame her topic for the design community. Here is a summary of the article's salient points:
If you look at the infographic I made for this post, you'll see that the cost of an architecture degree is higher than that of a standard 4-year bachelor's. This is not only because of the extra tuition and housing expenses required for a 5-year architecture degree, but also because of a higher opportunity cost. College may be a great investment for the future (and as my notebooks always said, “College Ruled”), but full-time students lose out on potential wages while they earn degrees. Those lost wages are the cost of college: a missed financial opportunity.
An unpaid internship after graduation raises the (opportunity) cost of attending school. Think of it like a tuition increase. But, unlike other disciplines, architecture holds a 13.9% unemployment rate for workers fresh out of college, not to mention twice the average student debt. Victory is ours. For young architects to then accept unpaid internships requires additional financial resources, attained either by working multiple jobs as baristas and babysitters, or by dipping into Mom and Dad's expense account. The result is decreased diversity in the workplace: affluent parents are able to finance their children's living expenses, allowing them to gain valuable experience and pull ahead of their peers.
Isn't that gloriously ironic? Not having a salary... is a status symbol. But the fact is that many cash-strapped graduates are simply not able to work in their chosen field because the only job openings are unpaid. In historically prestigious professions, such as law or medicine, the high cost of education and prolonged training periods of minimal pay become barriers to individuals of lower socioeconomic status. Architecture is no different. And with the number of unpaid internships increasing for many other professions as well, it is tempting to see this as another form of unconscious class discrimination in the U.S.
Why are interns falling over each other to work for free? It may be that design professionals simply champion self-sacrifice: think of repetitive all-nighters in college studios, or the overtime work required in fast-paced firms. In American culture, young people are made to pay their dues to prove that they can handle the pressure of an elite service industry. Unpaid internships fit well into this paradigm, as they illustrate an employee's work ethic and enthusiasm for creativity.
Many interns enjoy the challenge, and they understand (rightly so) that unpaid jobs are temporary learning experiences that will produce stronger resumes. But for Gen Y, the practice of unpaid internships may soon become the contemporary equivalent of the entry-level job.
A comic spin on statistical thinking:
Department of Labor Internship Laws:
Good opinion blog of unpaid internships:
We live in uncertain times. Let's use the uncertainty to redefine the way we are valued and the way we measure ourselves, to create the context for the change we want to make.