On Unpaid Internships

Lets get a few things out of the way before we begin.

This will be contentious. A lot of you may not agree with what I have to say. I hope you can hear me out, but to do so you'll probably need to disabuse yourself of a few stubborn beliefs. I did, too. 

This will be long. Not an essay, but not just a few paragraphs either. Some of you might not make it to the bitter end, but I really hope you do, and not for the sake of my ego.

This is premised on my personal experience- I don't have anything else to go on. I've spent a long time on the sidelines listening to both sides of a loud, angry, obstinate debate, and I'm writing this because I feel that my own experience doesn't quite fit into either narrative, and that maybe both sides could learn something from it.

Spoiler alert: I have never worked for free, but I did take internships that offered far less than a living wage. I was able to do this partly because I am privileged enough to know that I have family I can fall back on when the value of an opportunity far exceeds its salary. I could have supported myself through those placements, but even that is because I have the luxury of not being burdened with student loans, or any loans. Yet. Of course I am privy to the argument that the current system skews the playing field, and hands these sorts of opportunities almost exclusively to those who can afford them. It's valid, and it's more than likely true. But I think we are having the wrong debate, and supporting a solution to the wrong problem that is at best misguided, at worst destructive. But lets get started, and we'll talk about what to talk about later on.

I believe that if an argument is based on a false premise, then you can't engage the argument; you have to attack the premise. Maybe I've fundamentally misunderstood the debate over unpaid internships, but of all the arguments made against unpaid (or low-paid) internships, these are the two that come up the most frequently that I don't fully agree with: 

-that they are unfair because all work has an intrinsic value.

I'm going to talk about this in the context of my own experience. Personally I don't think this statement is true, but that has more to do with my own beliefs and values than with the debate over internships. On a more fundamental level I believe that this statement illustrates a crucial misconception about learning and work, and is one of the main reasons why we get the debate over internships and pay so wrong.

-that they are unfair because most students cannot afford to work without pay.

Now I know that this statement is unequivocally true (put down the pitckforks!) but it is only true because we've been having the wrong debate.

On the Value of Learning

Being a senior in my degree program is infuriating. I see myself doing the same things I was doing while on my internship, and note that no one is paying me to do them. I didn't feel that way in my third year, because I felt much more often that I was still learning something valuable about my field.

In fact, for the first few months of internship I really didn't feel like I was entitled to a salary.

After all, I was still learning. That too wore off. The difference is that as a student I don't have a choice. When I felt that I had learned all I could as an intern, I was able to prove it by earning my keep. And when I started feeling like I was worth something, my boss offered to pay me. How about that?

I spent six months working at a small consultancy in Toronto's east end. I've kept the names of the businesses, supervisors, colleagues and clients involved out of this story because they aren't relevant and in some cases they are protected by non-disclosure agreements. I had an amazing experience. I grew a lot as a designer and as a professional. I polished some design skills while picking up a whole suite of new skills that I had never thought necessary or even relevant. In the end, the experience was mutually beneficial, as it should be, for myself and for the business.

None of this would have been possible if I hadn't agreed to take a risk.

A real internship is a bit of mutual risk-taking. My employer and I agreed that I would start working for a low wage, enough to buy a Metropass and have some spending money in my pocket but not much more, and that if there was ever more money around he would start paying me more. The business was small and new; he wasn't taking advantage of me, rather he was being upfront about the risk he was taking. He had never even had an intern before. In fact, he hadn't even asked for one. My portfolio aside, how should he have known if I would be of any use? How should I have known? 

I spent a few months in this arrangement. I started learning how the business worked, and they gradually became more familiar with my skill set. As time went on I started taking on projects independently and even managing some of my own client relationships. There came a point where my growing independence had me feeling like I deserved a bit more. What mattered was that it had led to real results. I wasn't occupying my supervisors' time nearly as much, I knew what I was doing and I tried to do as much as possible, but here's the important part:

I was making them money. So they started paying me.

Opponents of unpaid internships will argue that the nature of an internship is benevolent, but why does it have to be that way? I don't want to feel like a charity case, and I certainly don't want to know that my salary is mandated by law. Shouldn't I be able to feel like I earned it? In fact, shouldn't I be actually able to earn it? 

I think of my internship experience in two phases. First I was learning, then I was doing. When I was learning, I had very little responsibility. My job was to read, to watch, to ask and most of all just to be there. The projects that I was given were ones that had little potential for profit- someone close to my boss had a patent application in the works and couldn't afford design work otherwise. An indie short film producer needed a set piece but non-profit rules forbade her from paying for labour. Someone walked in off the street with a "Could you 3-D model me a copy of this widget?" type of question and I flashed my manager the look that said I could do it in my sleep. They were fun projects with only vague deliverables and imaginary deadlines. When things went wrong that could have been construed as my fault, they never were. As I got better, the projects got less imaginary and more profitable.

At any new job, internship or professional, there's a steep learning curve. I had to learn my way around equipment that was new, unfamiliar and expensive. I had to learn how to deal with clients, contractors and colleagues. I had to learn how to sell myself, my work and the business itself to prospective clients. I did all of those things, and it took time. During that time, I was sometimes a strain on my supervisors. Sometimes I could tell, and I'm sure there were times where I couldn't. 

Once it became clear that I could work as fast as his designer, we started talking salary.

The great thing about working at a small business was that you knew pretty clearly what was coming in and going out. That meant that I also had some idea when the balance had shifted from when I was primarily learning (and getting more out of the internship than just the money) to when I was really able to contribute. And that was right around the point where we started talking salary.

From that point on, I was being paid well for my time and my responsibilities started to shift. My projects were ostensibly less about my own enjoyment and fulfillment and more about putting my billable hours to good use. As long as I kept pace with his designer, there was more money to be made because my time was still cheaper; this meant that there was still some room for fun, some room for experimentation and development, and some margin for error. It was an amazing experience that led to new clients and increased business, and netted me a vastly expanded network, design awards and even a job offer for next year.

Recognizing the value of learning is not the same as discounting the value of work.

So what was that about the value of learning? Learning has an immediate cost, and usually an immense future value. The current trend is to call for minimum compensation for all interns at all internships, but I don't believe for a second that I should have been paid for everything that I did while I was there. There are definitely employers offering internships that exist to take advantage of students willing to discount the value of their work, but to call on small businesses to pay interns like they pay employees is to discount the value (and the cost) of learning.

On Privilege and Inheritance 

Obviously the current system doesn't work. Admittedly, right now the kind of opportunity described above is most easily available to people like me- I had a place to live in a big city, I had family support readily available if I ever needed it and money was not my first concern when looking for internships. I don't think, however, that the solution is to make unpaid or low-paid internships illegal. 

There will always be opportunities where the value of the experience far outweighs the financial compensation. How about education itself? University education is expensive, and arguably another example of a system skewed towards the privileged. It is also widely held to be a valuable experience, even one worth going into debt for. Unlike internships, there are a wide variety of loans and scholarships targeted towards students so that they can go to university regardless of their financial situation. I'm not saying that these are perfect or even ideal, but they are far better than the support structures in place for potential interns, which are virtually none. Where scholarship opportunities exist for students intending to pursue internships, they are often obtuse and obscure- much less obvious, more specific and harder to find than the resources available to students pursuing post-secondary schools. This is a likely reason why so many students ignore the potential value of internships; it may point to why so many students pursue post-secondary education to a fault, and I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out that the perceived value of internships was skewed along socio-economic lines.

In case it needed clarification, I'm not advocating a return to feudalism, or suggesting that inherited privilege is fair or justified. I'm just trying to point out that we've gone this route before. The current debate about internships and compensation strikes me as a wishful attempt to legislate privilege out of the workplace; it's a noble effort that is doomed to fail. The notion that you can rid a system of its inherent privilege by removing opportunity is naive; it just tends to find its way back in. Public schools are meant to foster equal opportunity, and yet not all public schools are created equal. When my former high school needed a new sports field, the school board would only pay for half the cost- the same opportunity afforded to any other school. No problem, as our student body just raised the extra $800,000 that they needed.  

The very nature of privilege is the ability to create and seize opportunities that aren't universally attainable. Most public high schools still don't have an astroturf field, but mine did. 

How can we beat it? By making those opportunities universal; I didn't say paid. 

It seems to me that we are stuck in a debate about the compensation of interns, when what we need to have is a debate about the value of internships. I learned at least as much from a year spent working at home and abroad as I did from almost four years at university, and yet it was far less clear to me how or why to get an internship than it was to go to school. Internship and work experience are clearly important, yet we treat them as auxiliary. If our governments believed them to be nearly as vital a part of undergraduate education as the schools themselves, maybe we could finally stop trying to pin the blame on lousy employers and start supporting our students where it matters most.