Unpaid Internships – virtue or villain?

I was recently chastised for re-tweeting a posting by another architecture firm for an unpaid summer internship position.  I know this is a very contentious issue and I’m sure that I will catch major hell for posting this, but….well, I don’t really care.  It’s a conversation that needs to be had and I want to provide a place for anyone, for or against, to man up and post their pros and cons on the matter.

I’ll start with my own personal views:

I’m not really for or against unpaid internships.  The reason for this is, I haven’t ever been in a position to TAKE an unpaid internship, so it’s not something that has impacted my professional journey in any way and is therefore a non-issue in my opinion.

Now, the opinion by many seems to be that it is an “unethical” practice and is somehow “demoralizing” to the profession.  This, quite frankly I find a little silly, but I also think it is at the heart of the argument.  Personally I disagree because I see an unpaid internship for what it is – a consensual business agreement between mature and knowledgeable parties and not an exchange of goods and/or services.  You see, the firm offering the position is making a trade of what I feel is unequal value.  The firm gets a inexperienced intern for a temporary period of time in which they will impart valuable knowledge and skills for which they get not much more than the interns time.  To me this is more than a fair trade on the part of the intern.  This is mostly an altruistic endeavor on the part of the firm.  It’s called pouring in to the next generation and should be done by ALL OF US, no matter our profession.  The more we build up the profession, the better off we’ll all be.

So, how does this “demoralize” the profession?  How is this an “unethical” practice?  In what way is anyone in this situation acting in an unprofessional manner?  The intern gets valuable experience and the firm gets to help further the profession of architecture by training the intern.  Seems a very ethical and even altruistic position to me.

Now, under the US Dept of Labor “guidelines” for unpaid internships, it states that an intern is entitled to compensation unless the following items apply, and in this case, and many others, I believe THEY DO.  Feel free to disagree. 🙂

The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment – obviously this applies to any internship, paid or unpaid.  An employer provides education, similar (but better) to that at a university, in a practical environment.

The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern – for our purposes, this is a bit of a no brainer. Name one employer that would directly benefit from an inexperienced and untrained intern….THEY DON’T BECAUSE THEY HAVE TO TRAIN THEM.  This takes time, sometimes more than a year to get a green intern to a point that they can be trusted with something more complicated than spelling their own name or answering the phone properly.

The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff – this also is typically easily addressed.  An intern, of this type, typically is brought on by the firm because they want to offer an opportunity to either a recent grad or a current student to offer practical, real world experience.

The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded – I mostly addressed this in the item directly above – firms typically provide these unpaid positions as a way to offer training to the up and coming generation of architects.  Any “benefit” they get is mostly altruistic.  Yes, they get what some consider a “slave” to do their bidding, but they are still providing valuable education and experience which is the ultimate motive.

The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship – this can be handled and/or investigated on a case by case basis when they are advertised.  Any unpaid positions that I personally have ever seen stipulate that a full time position is not guaranteed, and in some cases discouraged, once the internship is over.  The rationale here is that the firm does not want to seem to be giving special treatment to those who have completed an internship.

The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship – this for me is the real heart of the matter.  An employer advertises a unpaid internship and gets a response from a willing participant.  All particulars of the position are either outlined in the ad or discussed further with the applicant during an interview.  The applicant does not have to accept OR EVEN APPLY for the position.  It is a completely voluntary agreement between two consenting parties.  If no one were to take the position, the advertising firm would eventually take down the ad and move on to business as usual.

So I certainly want to hear from anyone and EVERYONE.  If you agree, great! Tell my WHY.  If you disagree, great! Tell me WHY!  This is an important discussion to have for our profession.  I’m sure we’re not going to change a whole lot of minds, but we can come together, offer dissenting opinions, have a discussion and learn an alternate point of view.  I will moderate comments, so lets try to keep it professional if not always friendly. 😉 Passion and conviction are MORE THAN WELCOME.


15 thoughts on “Unpaid Internships – virtue or villain?

  1. Am I really the first one to bite at this? Maybe everyone else is composing, then erasing and recomposing what they hope will be a convincing argument.

    To this I say “whats the argument”? have a little pride. Dont feel like you’re “doing me a favor” by hiring me for an unpaid position. I should be so honored that I’m finally getting experience to put on my resume.

    I remember being in college in a similar time when jobs were scarce. I cold called and worked my resources. Finally! I found someone who was willing to look at my portfolio and entertain offering me a summer position. Crazy enough I spilled it all. Saying I would work for free! Susan Richards Johnson in KC said that there is no way she would allow me to do that. She paid me $6 an hour. This was a little more than minimum wage at the time. Thank god she did! It costs money to work! I lived with my dad. I brought my lunch most days. I still had to pay for gas, and parking was $2.50 a day for a spot I had to climb out of the hatch most days cause I couldn’t open my door. I worked diligently and learned a lot, but this is me. Unpaid interns will get valuable experience. I don’t doubt that! If you are still in school its much easier to take an unpaid internship in your hometown especially if you’re fortunate enough ti have family to help you out. Maybe I could have gotten an unpaid internship and then worked somewhere else after hours for money. Would I have taken that internship unpaid? Damn straight! I didn’t know any better. Employers know better. Registerd architects and business owners know better. I’m not asking that you pay me $12/hr as a summer intern, but I do expect minimum wage at least. Don’t discount the value an intern can bring. Especially one that has the ability to design, can focus on a task, and knows how to use autocad or revit. They may provide fresh ideas and talent that you would otherwise be missing.

  2. I think it says more about the leadership and the company. It’s right to pay a stipend to at least cover some basic expenses like transportation. A pretty good ROI. And experience for the intern.

  3. I have to say Jeremiah… disappointed is the only word to describe me at this point. I expressed that already…. and I would chastise you again. Ehe! 😛
    It IS unethical. If it wasn’t it would not be expressed and outlined by our own most significant parent organization, the AIA, and all other professional organizing bodies that address it ine one way or another.
    it IS unlawful, and nothing of what you’ve outlined above has described the argument from both sides. You’ve only expressed your opinion from one end… the wrong end. You’ve given us the very rosie, very idealistic picture, that simply does not exist.
    If you read my earlier post (http://iitponte.wordpress.com/2011/06/09/unpaid-internships-dont/) which I’m sure you did -given your opening lines-, you’d see I very clearly expressed my reasons for believing it unlawful. It is so because if it wasn’t, big money making more intelligent hungry firms would do it… they don’t, because they can’t. No one should. Their in-house lawyer I am sure would have plenty to say.
    You don’t have to believe. You don’t have to agree. To each its own.
    I, personally, would never allow myself to believe, not for one second, that the “act of learning” of another is a privilege I provide, versus a right they’re naturally born with.
    By the way…

  4. I am against unpaid internships for the following reason:

    Working for free is immoral. That is all.

    I have never seen a waiter working for 1,2,3….months for free because the lack of experience. Any kind of work produces an added value that has to be compensated according to the skills of the intern. Acquiring knowledge is a part of the reward, but you also need money to buy a pencil to draw your ideas (you know what I mean). At least, any internship should cover the basic needs, like food, transportation and a basic help for accommodation. Most architects use to talk about the ‘social role’ of architecture, but at the same time they have lots of interns working for free as slaves. Where is the dignity of our profession? I am claiming a little bit of respect for all the interns because they are the future, and all experienced architects were interns once in the past.

  5. Great argument. I see some emotion involved here. I have never worked for free, that is until I owned my own firm. However I have been severely under paid in my past.

    I have read the Department of Labor Guidelines as well as the AIA’s position. To me it’s a slippery slope. If you wish to have an unpaid intern, then you’d better paste those guidelines on the wall and be sure not to cross them. Once you sort through all of the legal issues and rules it comes down to gut instinct and a good sense of what is fair. I have also heard too many stories of starchitects not paying interns or paying ridiculously low rates. I have heard of internships where the architect doesn’t have to pay, but some other organization provides a stipend, salary or some other fancy term for payment. I suppose that is ok as long as there is fair payment involved. I also know some type ‘A’ personality kid may beg for an internship and offer to work for free. I don’t need the guidlines, I have to go with what I know is right.

    I don’t believe in an unpaid internship. Everyone has something of value to give, therefore there should be something of value returned, specifically money.

  6. This is awesome. Thank you everyone who has commented already. Now if only the others on twitter would step up and use more than 140 characters to actually defend their position, I’d be even happier with the results.
    The majority of opinions seem to be that unpaid internships are “immoral”, “unethical” and even “illegal”. These are opinions and interpretations, though very valid.
    What I am also finding interesting is that the points of view seem to focus solely on the fact that unpaid work is wrong….PERIOD. No one has addressed the fact that the legality of this issue applies only to for-profit businesses (those greedy corporate bloods suckers, how dare they want to make money…*sarcasm*). What about not-for-profit businesses that perhaps don’t even offer paid positions accept to those in leadership positions? Are they immoral? Are they illegal? Should they apply to the same stipulations and regulations by the US Labor Dept?
    I SAY YES!
    Why do I say that? Because I believe if you are going to regulate one sector of society, it should apply across the board otherwise it itself is immoral and in my opinion illegal. Just like it violates anti-trust law for architects to get together collectively (in groups of more than two) to discuss reasonable fees for services, but yet when you go to see a mechanic they have set fees to charge for certain services which is standard across the board. Insurance companies also do this as well as other industries. Why is it not allowed for one profession but allowed for so many others?
    I’m not really wanting to start a discussion on anti-trust law, but I am trying to make the point of fairness here. If a non-profit is allowed to hire unpaid employees (because, lets be honest, they also benefit from the interns unpaid work), then it should be allowed across the board. Put whatever regulations and stipulations on it you want, just make it across the board and not in favor of one while not in favor of another.
    Lastly I would like to say that I personally would never take an unpaid internship, no matter the prestige of the architect or their office. For my own professional career, it’s not a choice that I would make. I believe that my time is valuable and I want to be compensated accordingly. That is a personal and professional choice on my part – the same choice that we all have to make.
    At the same time I still don’t buy that the profession is being damaged by unpaid internships or that it is immoral. That is extreme language indeed. After all, as I said before, if no interns take the position, it’s a moot point isn’t it? If an intern finds enough value in the work and experience to do so without compensation, that is his/her professional choice and they should be free to make that choice. Just as a architecture firm should be free to put that choice out there. Obviously there is an extreme to every side of the coin.
    “What if all internships suddenly become unpaid positions?” Yeah that would be bad. But then, the other side of that coin is “What if people stop going to architecture school because they can’t make any money until they’ve completed x-amount of intern hours?” Either case would crumble the profession, which is why you don’t see a majority of unpaid internships out there. Before yesterday I had never actually seen one advertised and I’ve been practicing for 7+ years. Again, if no one takes the positions they will go away. Supply and Demand. If there is no demand eventually the supply will go away. People do not work for free out of necessity. That’s just stupid. They work for free because they see value in the work they’ll be doing. It’s a choice.

    • Did you know after that, after reading the department of labor 6 points test, the job post you were promoting was changed?
      Just saying!

      • haha! That’s awesome! Hey, if they believe they can’t own up to the regulations as it stands, then they did the right thing. But I still stand by my opinions and beliefs. Just as you do yours. 🙂

  7. Sorry! I’m a little late to the game on this one. I appreciate where you’re coming from and think there’s merit to some of your points for sure. The one that I take the biggest issue with is this:

    “The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern – for our purposes, this is a bit of a no brainer. Name one employer that would directly benefit from an inexperienced and untrained intern….THEY DON’T BECAUSE THEY HAVE TO TRAIN THEM.”

    Speaking as an HR person at an architecture firm, I think this is a little demeaning to the interns. I know that large firms like mine get a lot out of having interns for the summer, and I can only assume small firms feel the same way. They work hard and do a lot of the production work that typically goes to the junior staff. With that taken care of, the junior staff have an opportunity to take on higher-level roles and learn a bit about what it’s like to manage people. The project managers are thrilled because they get a lot of the work done by an extra set of hands at a very low cost to the project. And, like you said, the interns get a lot of training from the firm and those they work with. It’s a win for everyone.

    And on another note, as someone who has held an unpaid internship, I can honestly say that it’s a miserable experience. I worked hard and earned the slot on my resume, which looked good while I was in college. But it was hard to have a life and pay my rent while I was working there, so I actually supplemented that with a low-paying job at the same time. It doesn’t bring back fond memories for me. And while it wasn’t their fault that they couldn’t pay me necessarily, it made me want to avoid the life of the public sector because it made me realize that it’s hard to earn a living there. From my current vantage point, I don’t want to stir up that kind of impression in my interns, people I see as potential recruits down the road. Paying them is a good way to get started on the right foot and show them that the wonderful world of architecture has a lot of benefits, and won’t cause you to be a starving artist when you’re fresh out of school.

    • Mike, thanks for your comments. I appreciate your point of view, especially being in HR. First let me say that I am sorry that you had such an unpleasant experience as an intern. Let me say again, that I personally would never take nor advertise a unpaid position of any kind. I don’t believe personally or professionally that an intern should work for free. But, I don’t agree that any governing body should make it an illegal practice. I believe that any company should have the right to throw out the position and if someone is so inclined to take it, that is their choice. I’m a true libertarian at heart, so when anyone, especially a governing body, tells me that either I can not do something or that something is inherently “wrong” or even “immoral”, I simply stand up and say “why”. That’s the kind of guy I am.
      Let me say again, for everyone reading this blog, I do not personally or professionally condone unpaid internship positions. I wouldn’t offer one and I certainly wouldn’t accept one. Though I still defend the right of a company to offer it. It can always be turned down. And if this type of practice is allowed for a non-profit organization than it should be allowed for a for-profit organization as well. True fairness has to go both ways. Otherwise we are simply pitting one group against another creating animosity and dissension. This is not helpful to any profession no matter the circumstances.
      I sincerely thank everyone for stepping up and putting themselves out there in this discussion. I truly love diverging opinions and always welcome the sharing of ideas. Thank you all and keep em coming!

  8. Jeremiah, Regarding your concern about people chatting up your article on Twitter but not actually posting comments- there might be a solution for you. Check out http://yoast.com/wordpress/tweetbacks/
    It allows you to add them as part of your comment string or display them separately. Sounds cool in theory but I don’t have anything like that implemented in my blog so I cannot comment as to how successful it is. Maybe others can chime in (here and not on twitter 😉

  9. editors’ note: this comment came into my spam filter because, obviously either this person wished to remain anonymous or really does use the email “aaaa@yahoo.com”…either way, spam or not, I thought the points were valid. I post it for your consideration.
    these posts are all great but they don’t really hint to what people should do under these situations. I am getting my masters in architecture and i have noticed that MOST people do not have any internships at all. Some are lucky to get paid internships, others do unpaid internships. What is certain is that the industry does not provide enough paid internships.

    So I got an unpaid internship this summer. What should I do? Take it (because at the very least, I avoid spending money going out and feeling sorry for myself) or let it go. If I let it go will someone else take it and gain contacts that I won’t? these are the things to consider and while many people advise me to not take unpaid internships out of some moral high ground of it being illegal, I really don’t know what else I can do. I don’t have that many options, and these companies KNOW it. Until there is some united, purposeful, legal action on a grand scale, I have to keep taking these internships because everyone else is!

    In game theory there are many ways to analyze this bid to the bottom, but the basic gist is that people ‘play’ not to get the best wages, but to avoid the worst-case scenario (i have to take this unpaid internship because otherwise someone else will, and in a couple of years I will have no experience AND no wages.) And Jimmy over there who took the unpaid internship, will be the first in line for the next job.

    For all of this huge upset over unpaid internships, very few people talk about the reasons why people take them and whether or not it is worth it, for someone like me, to take one.And no, it is not true that people with a bad economic situation do not take unpaid internships. If anything, I have found that those people are the most likely to take them, out of desperation and a need to succeed somehow. The wealthier are more likely to have fun and just bide their time until something that is actually good comes along.

  10. this is ridiculous!
    i agree with one thing that the author stated, yes, you dont have to apply to this job if you dont like it, you wanna work for free , then its your choice.
    but is it abusive, absolutely, its taking advantage of students who NEED the internships, NOT to learn, but for the hours and the bullcrap that comes with it……….
    so yes it is abusive
    you wouldnt wanna do it to yourself , then do it for others,
    no one wants to work for free

    and yes the employer benefits greatly, while he or she is training the intern, the intern is producing work… for little or no money, shit i would love that myself!

    anyyyyyyyy shit job has paid training, nothing is free, in that case, they lose, otherwise its slavery.

    • Amiii, we’ll agree to disagree for the most part. I find your statement interesting that “it’s taking advantage of students who NEED the internships, NOT to learn, but for the hours”. So, it’s your opinion that a graduate of architecture is fully equipped to handle all aspects of practice upon graduating and the “hours” that they need to acquire are nothing more than bureaucratic red tape and therefore they’ve in some way EARNED the right to pay? Forgive me, but….that’s silly.

      Are there unpaid internships out there? Yes. Are they morally wrong or “abusive” as you say? I say no. “Abuse” is something that is forced on another person. There is no choice in the matter. An unpaid internship is accepted by the intern willing to take on that responsibility typically for some kind of prestige or gold star on their resume. The intern is benefiting, though perhaps not directly in the form of a paycheck. And I still maintain that any benefit gained by an employer are overshadowed by the real costs of training a intern above any compensation they offer. I’ve been an intern. I know exactly how naive and unqualified I was for my first internship. And yes I was paid for my hours and I was grateful for that. But I was far more grateful for all that I learned in that position which was worth far more than the money I received as compensation. The scales were tipped much farther in my favor than that of my employer.
      In the end this is nothing more than a professional judgement call on the part of the intern. It is not something that should be legislated or regulated as “illegal”. The free market is fully capable of weeding out these practices naturally, which for the most part it already has.
      Thanks for stopping by and offering your perspective to the argument, but again we agree to disagree.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s