LD On The DL: Who Do Internships Benefit?

LD On The DL: Who Do Internships Benefit?

Before Fashion Week we bid on a job. Ryan and I gathered the necessary materials and sent out the bid. A day later we got an angry phone call from the potential client. The conversation went something like this:

“This price is ridiculous. What's wrong with you people?”

“Well, we think it's fair. You're asking for a lot to be done in an incredibly short amount of time which, as we discussed, requires more people and makes labor costs much higher.”

“You pay your people?”

“Our background is in freelance, and we believe strongly in paying people living wages. We can't ask people to work for free.”

“But I'm [a moderately well known fashion designer] and was [X]th place on [a mildly popular fashion TV show]! I don't have a problem getting interns! I'll have my people do it for free.”

“Interns aren't qualified to do this work.” Long, awkward pause.

“Never mind. I'll hire a different company.” Click.

I then began noticing the glut of unpaid staff on fashion job sites and I began to wonder, who exactly benefits from all this free labor? Is it the intern, the employer, both, or neither?

Does the intern benefit by providing his or her services for free? There is one big question to ask: Is working for free today an investment which will deliver returns tomorrow? There's no data to suggest or predict what the amount of uncompensated time invested today will yield in dollars tomorrow. Instead, immediate compensation takes the form of “contacts,” or, “experience,” none of which pay the rent but do alleviate the employer's expectation to provide some type of compensation. Anecdotally, many interns believe working for free is a great career stepping stone, however I think serious research is lacking to verify this commonly held belief. I would like to see data that delineates quantitatively what this intern's investment payout is likely to be. Only then can we say with absolute certainty that contacts and experience have any actual worth, beyond comforting employers.

On the other hand, is the employer benefitting? Basic economics of supply and demand are clearly in play. With such a huge amount of cheap supply, a lot of people willing to work for free, demand stays pretty low. Thus, rates stay pretty low. Free labor drives down the price of paid labor. That benefits companies, and not interns once they decide to become part of the paid labor force.

Furthermore, mounting evidence suggests companies are over hiring interns. Maybe the bad economy is to blame, but it's hard to imagine an economic climate where businesses would shun free labor. The New York Times published an interesting article (click here) about some common abuses, which seem to provide the intern with neither contacts or valuable experience. They do, however, provide the employer with cheap, abusable labor for a fraction the cost ... or none of it.

Ultimately, I do not think it's a total win for employers. Interns are not necessarily qualified labor, and need constant supervision and re-training due to the high turnover rate. However, free labor is still a pretty sweet deal for the bottom line.

Is it possible for both interns and employer to benefit from each other? Surely there must be altruistic companies who do feel it's important to educate the next generation. But without controls or regulation how is one to separate the good from the bad? I'd like to offer two test questions for all those considering unpaid internships.

Question One: how much is the designer, organization, theater, or company investing in you, the intern? Are they providing housing, per diem pay, transportation, or some living expenses? If so, what is that amount in dollars? If the answer is zero and you're getting paid in contacts and experience, or just experience, take a hard look at the internship and approach it skeptically.

Question Two: if the designer, organization, theater, or company had to pay their interns a living wage, would they be an economically viable entity? If the answer is no be careful you're not signing up for mind numbing grunt work they can't afford to pay anyone else to do.

Perhaps nobody benefits from internships, not intern or company. If the two test questions listed above are both “no,” I think a lose-lose dynamic can easily be created. The intern who pays for everything ends up investing actual dollars and uncompensated time (a double whammy) today for access to contacts and experience, which may (or may not) lead to money tomorrow. Furthermore, the intern is working at an deluded organization that isn't even economically viable, which begs the question how can the intern find paid work if his or her employer can't either?

I think the reasoning behind internships is steeped in the American ethos of “Work hard and you will achieve,” right after a line about, “...paying your dues.” The romantic notion can easily be abused. The idea of being in close proximity to [your craft here] eventually leading to paid work may be ubiquitous, but is certainly far from conclusive. Safeguards, intelligent questions, and a skeptical attitude may go a lot further in the long term than contacts and experience.

 

Lance Darcy is a Lighting Director and Director of Photography for The Lighting Design Group, based in New York City

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