The beginning of January heralds the start of Intern Season. Soon college students and recent graduates will blanket the country in an attempt to land nifty summer positions. Job sites will be staffed with eager, young souls looking to learn, grow, and hone their craft. They will watch their elders ... us ... and from being around us will absorb our knowledge in a continuing, beautiful circle of life not unlike the apprentices of master craftsman during the middle ages.
And if you believe that I’ve got some real estate in Florida to sell you.
In truth I’m largely uncomfortable with internships, which in my experience rarely benefit anyone -- especially the intern -- who can sometimes find themselves on the receiving end of abuse. The N.Y. Times has done several pieces documenting the phenomenon.
However if we’re being honest, that’s not the whole story. When my wife asked about my general discomfort with interns, I gave the above reasoning thinking my altruistic motives would impress her. She would swoon at my noble concern for those poor, young kids who found themselves doing the corporate equivalent of mining salt. Unfortunately, she said instead, “Don’t bulls*** me. What’s the real reason?”
My wife is right, and not because she has conditioned me to say so. When presented with an intern, I’m not entirely sure what to do with them. We just sort of stare awkwardly at each other. I feel stupid. I ask them to do very little, because I don’t want them to do grunt work. They end up sitting around, which must make them feel out of place. I don’t know what to say, so I don’t say anything. I become keenly aware of this gulf between us. Looking across that expanse makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me leery of internship programs. To fully answer my wife, however, we need to talk about the gulf. Where does the gulf come from? What is it made of? The issue is complex and multi-faceted.
One aspect stems from the emphasis colleges and universities put on gear. During the 2000s when all our clients were shoveling money at us for elaborate productions, more money also became available for capital improvements in the university system. Thanks to these investments many universities now showcase their new facilities, all filled with shiny, new gear. The latest boards (sometimes two or three), the best lekos, the most sophisticated dimmers, the highest fidelity sound systems, as well as LEDs so bright they’re useful. Graduates and interns possess so much knowledge of this equipment, I am in awe of their experience and exposure. Just one, slight, tiny, tiny problem: Largely, it’s overkill.
Most theaters in New York City are not shiny or new. Not surprisingly, the gear isn’t either. Some TV studios -- ones even belonging to the major networks -- still use lights which were originally purchased during the I Love Lucy era. Many arts programs not backed by an endowment lack access to the capital needed to purchase or maintain the latest and greatest anything.
Should an upcoming job require the use of unfamiliar gear, then professionals take it upon themselves to learn it. There are a myriad of ways to accomplish this. Many metropolitan areas have equipment shops which house gear they want people to use. The more people who know the gear, the more people will hopefully rent it out. This increases the shop’s ROI, a win-win for all involved. When my current employer hired me, I knew I had to become an expert on EOS and ION consoles. I knew the boards but not fluently. I politely asked ETC and they allowed me to sit for many hours in their New York office where, with the manual on my laptop, I learned the two consoles‘ deeper functionality. I think we can all agree graduates should possess some base knowledge of gear, however that only requires the basics ... nothing new or fancy. Old, beat-up gear, however, does not sell expensive degrees at private, out-of-state, or for-profit universities.
What should college students be learning? Business. I believe everyone interested in the arts should actually major in business and minor in whatever creative field interests them. Most young artists cannot draft a cohesive invoice, perform a cost-benefit analysis, use Excel, create a budget, negotiate with potential clients and vendors, or read contracts. They lack experience in marketing and branding, two critical aspects of lead generation. Without lead generation, there is no future income in the pipeline. Artists like to think that because they are artists, business knowledge is superfluous. Rather, the opposite is true. Because they are artists, business knowledge is critical.
But the perspective interns really lack from their recent education is client service. My job is really client service job with a lighting emphasis. The bulk of my job revolves around making sure the client is happy first, making sure my bosses are happy second, project management third, then a collection of other things (interpersonal skills, a myriad of business skills, etc.,). Occupying the last 10% (on a good day) are things like lighting concepts, gear, and actual design. For photographers, DPs, and TV LDs you can add knowledge of camera gear in that last 10%. For caterers, just swap out the lights and REDs for food and kitchen equipment. For florists, just substitute floral varieties and decor items instead. Interns are so intensely focused on the last 10%. They’ve spent years and thousands of dollars on the last 10%. Interns think internships fill in the last bits of knowledge that can only be provided by an actual job site. I think interns lack the core understanding or frame of reference to be allowed near a job site. I do not understand how any program in good conscience can send anyone into the world without these basic business and client service concepts. Gear is not king, nor is a gear or theory-centric education substitute for skills in business, marketing, and project management.
Internships feel a lot like apprenticeships from earlier eras. In that system a master craftsman teaches the young apprentice the trade. The student follows a prescribed path that eventually culminates with him or her becoming the master. Many areas of the economy still work this way. Young would be doctors follow a very predictable career path within the hospital system on their way to becoming a full physician. My wife’s career path within the finance world is a path walked by many before her and, presumably, will be taken by many after her. In that ecosystem internships make a lot of sense. The student can see their future in five, ten, or twenty years hence. Surely the environment will change and technology will grow, but the rough outline remains.
I’m not sure any of that ecosystem translates to our profession or the arts in general, which also helps explain why the gulf exists. One person’s path cannot be followed by another. The route to my current post is so bizarre, illogical, and confounding that to replicate it would be impossible. I also wouldn’t wish the torture or working conditions of my early years on anybody. Because of the freelance nature of much of our work, a career path can open and close before many have had the chance to traverse it.
Also, there just aren’t many slots to fill. How many full time Lighting Design jobs are there in New York City? 100? 200? Sitting here I can think of no more than 75. And while freelance posts abound, it’s a hard way for all but a few to make a full-time living. With supply so high, demand and wages often aren’t. So once an individual takes a path -- once a slot is occupied -- it may be years before that route becomes available again.
Lastly, technology has changed so drastically entire careers are evaporating. In the not-so-distant past it took one person to run ten dimmers on the old dimmer boards. Now, in many low budget productions the stage manager presses a button which controls hundreds of dimmers simultaneously. The job the intern sees me doing is a job that may not exist in five, ten, or twenty years. What benefit does an intern get by observing a position that will likely be different in just a few years, all while missing the most basic aspects of my job to begin with?
I am fortunate to be where I am. I regularly give thanks for all that I have -- things that go beyond having a good job. However, internships aren’t about celebrating my successes. They’re about helping to ensure the intern’s future success. Having an intern entangles you in their journey. You become a part of their story, you take some responsibility for their start in life. You help shape their career at its most vulnerable point. There’s a fiduciary element to working with an intern, a trust and an understanding that, yes, I will help you transition into this larger world with my guidance and protection. But to tell an intern any of this would be inappropriate. I can’t express any of these doubts and fears about their future in our changing industry. I can’t overtly persuade them to take another path. They aren’t ready to hear it, just as I wasn’t ready to listen when I was their age. How does anybody resolve this internal conflict that goes round in my head every time I hear the word, “Intern?”
I know, I’m neurotic. The answer is time. The gulf is made of time. I want the intern to somehow leap forward through time and see the world as I do ... if only for a brief moment. I have seen, done, and suffered through a myriad of experiences that have shaped my perspective and who I am. The intern has yet to experience any of those things. If they could just see my perspective for a moment, I could save them so much heartache. Hard lessons learned ring in my ears, while potential and the future ring in theirs.
Nobody is ever going to see the world the way I do. What’s an industry professional leery of internships to do? I thought on this a lot. Maybe interns just want to be treated how my mentors treat me. They never lecture or rant. They are kind. They are wise but not braggarts, knowledgable but not conceited. They offer their perspective only when asked. They share a cab on a rainy night; they buy a drink after a terrible day. They treat me as an equal, even though we are not. They listen. Listen.
Now that I can do.