Paid VS Unpaid Design Internships
February 8, 2011 8:14 AM   Subscribe

I'm a graphic design student. Members of an agency came to our class to recruit for their unpaid internship. Their work is great, they seem nice, but is it a bad sign that the internship is unpaid?

School is full-time. I haven't had a job since moving to this new town and starting this school year. I have barely enough money to scrape by, but I would like to earn some money to make things a little easier. More importantly, though, I would like to work in a professional design environment to get better real-world experience.

As a designer, I've been taught to run from people who ask you for free work with promises of paying work in the future or "exposure." However, six out of the twenty employees at this particular agency are graduates from my school. Many were all interns at one time.

Here's the thing that is really sticking in my brain, though. My teacher said that better agencies don't have to pay their interns because everyone is trying to get in with them, so they have their pick of the best. This doesn't make any sense to me. Wouldn't the better agencies have the budget and moral fortitude to pay their interns? Or am I wrong in thinking this? Should I seek out a paying internship (or possibly a job) or should I give this one a shot?
posted by buriednexttoyou to Work & Money (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Think of this less as a job, and more like an audition. You can demonstrate your skills, show that you can get along with staff, and show that you can put up with acre-feet of bullshit. That way when they have a real job with a real salary you are one of the people to whom they think to offer it. Alternatively, you can ask them for a kick-ass letter of rec so you can get a job in a city where there is more design work. It sucks that it isn't paid, but you should go to career services at your school and see if the school has any funding for students in internships.
posted by pickypicky at 8:22 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Paid and unpaid internships should be fundamentally different creatures. A paid internship should essentially be a job. An unpaid internship should be a learning opportunity for the intern, NOT free labor for the company.

Of course in many industries, violation of this law is widespread. In other words, it's not a question of moral fortitude, it's a question of legality.

Assuming that this design company is acting within the law (which is highly suspect to me), you should decide whether you see an internship as primarily a chance to earn some money, or a chance to hone your skills and make industry connections in an environment with little actual job pressure.
posted by muddgirl at 8:26 AM on February 8, 2011

Echoing that we use volunteers/internships as extended job interviews.

Paid students are not treated hugely differently, but there's less thought of future employment in our organization.
posted by bonehead at 8:29 AM on February 8, 2011

moral fortitude

LOL. Businesses are in the business of making money, and people are offering to work for free. Of course they'll take it. These unpaid internships should be illegal, IMO, in theory they could be structured differently but the system is rife for abuse and there is zero incentive for anyone to complain.
posted by delmoi at 8:29 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is a challenge. If they like your work, it's totally possible that funding for the internship will magically appear at some point during your internship.

It's mostly illegal, because if they (and you) are doing it right you will be treated like an employee, but that's just how it works in most industries.

The good news is that many organizations, schools, etc. offer competitive grants for unpaid interns. Check with your career services office or dean's office, and scour the web (particularly if you fit into any kind of niche group that might give you preference somewhere).
posted by charmcityblues at 8:35 AM on February 8, 2011

Is it for school credit, or just "hey come work for free! maybe we'll hire you! or not!"?

If it's through your school and you would get credit for taking part, it's definitely legit and probably worthwhile. If only for the chance to spend 10-15 hours a week seeing what it's like to really work in that environment, and having that work toward your degree. Programs like that are also more likely to be a real learning opportunity and less unpaid shitwork, too, because the school (theoretically) has policies on what should and shouldn't be part of the internship.
posted by Sara C. at 8:53 AM on February 8, 2011

As long as you are not just a gopher making coffee runs then the experience will be more valuable than money in the long run. Make sure you ask in the interview what exactly you will be doing and what opportunities may exist post-graduation.
posted by JJ86 at 8:53 AM on February 8, 2011

If the internship is unpaid, legally (in the eyes of the IRS), they should not be charging clients for your work *and* there should be a significant teaching component. In reality many design and media companies use unpaid interns and profit from them.

From what I've seen (been designer for 15 odd years in boutique design shops in Chicago) a lot of the firms that do this are either unscrupulous asshats...OR young and hip doing interesting work that they are excited about who also work their designers like dogs. (as others have said, if there are a lot of people wanting to work with them, they can pick and choose those that will do this).

If you get a chance, I'd try to talk to a couple of the other designers to see what their internship was like. Did they learn a lot? Are they glad they did it? What are they working currently on? What is the typical work week? And then decide from there. Maybe you'll decide it is worth it anyhow.

But DO keep your skepticism about doing work for free. There is a lot of potential for abuse in this business. Clients don't know the time it takes to do things, everyone is watching the bottom line, lots of folks asking for Spec work. Sometimes you do it anyhow for good karma, but karma doesn't put food on the table.
posted by Wink Ricketts at 8:54 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

My general rule of thumb in school was that I had to have access to something tangible out of an internship, whether or not I took it. The internship should either offer school credit (whether or not I chose to take the credit) or pay.
posted by freshwater at 9:00 AM on February 8, 2011

Unfortunately, from what I've seen, unpaid internships are REALLY common. And like your teacher said, it is an expectation in the top, high-profile agencies.

I was in the position of not being able to afford an unpaid internship while I was in school. I graduated 3 years ago from a design program, and among all of my classmates I was one of very few people who found a full-time paid internship (in a unionized company). I was lucky, in a way. Some of my friends worked in the offices of international (I'm sure you would know them if I put the name here) agencies and were taken out to $100 lunches by their supervisors. And then not paid. It is not fair, but agencies can get away with it, so they do. And the competition for the high-profile internships is fierce.

At the time I didn't have much choice over whether to take unpaid internships, but in the past few years I've seen that it has had a positive impact on my classmate's careers to have interned for Big Fancy Agency. Because then Small Local Agency wants to hire them right out of school. Interns at Local Hip Agency will get hired somewhere usually, as well. Whereas my internship was a learning experience, but doesn't really have any weight on my resume.

If I had the opportunity again, maybe I'd do the unpaid thing. BUT with the caveat that I would do a lot of research... the agency should be well-regarded. Ask others who have done the internship, and grill all your teachers about the opportunities. One of my friends (at an int'l fancy agency) spent his time dealing with supervisor's hangovers and watching them snort coke in the bathroom.

In conclusion, it sucks, but it's the way it works, and you have to decide for yourself if you want to work within that system or go outside it.

But, you know, don't work for some random schmuck with a "business venture" for free.
posted by 100kb at 9:02 AM on February 8, 2011

Some light reading.
posted by rhizome at 10:07 AM on February 8, 2011

Along the lines of rhizome's post, here's a New York Times article from last year regarding the legality of unpaid internships. It references six legal criteria which must be met in order for the worker to be considered a trainee under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA):
1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the
employer, is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic
educational instruction;
2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees;
3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the
activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually
be impeded;
5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training
period; and
6. The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to
wages for the time spent in training.

If the worker is not a trainee, then the employer must pay them at least the federal minimum wage for all hours worked and over time pay at 1.5 times the regular rate for all hours worked over 40 in a work week.
posted by elmay at 10:53 AM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've been a designer for 25 years. First in-house for a company, then on my own as a freelancer. I'd recommend you not spend a lot of time and energy on an unpaid position. If you can swing a deal for less than 10 hours a week.. fine, just to get the feel of agency work, and make some connections. I'd set a limit on how long it goes on too.

With regard to the unpaid internships... I think they are probably trying to help, but pretty happy about the free labor too.

You might try offering your budding skills to the freelance community. Freelancers often live a roller-coaster project schedule... sometimes way too busy, sometimes not. Offer yourself as a "Design Assistant" at an affordable rate($15-20/hr..?). Freelancers often need an outlet for some of the more mundane work, production etc. Maybe not so exciting, but as you build skills you'll be building real world experience, making some dough, and making a lot of valuable contacts. I'd bet you start getting freelance jobs on your own pretty quickly.

You may look too for small companies needing someone (perhaps part time) in a "catch all" capacity... a lot of small companies need someone who can do some design, some web work, some marketing etc... but can't afford a full time experienced designer/web person. This is a great way to build skills (and believe me, the more diverse your skill set the better off you are). Again... real world, paid experience.

Good luck!
posted by ecorrocio at 11:30 AM on February 8, 2011

The idea is that if you can get school credit (or even if you can't) for the internship NOW, it will open doors to paid work in the future. This is the kind of dues-paying you want to do while you are in school, not afterward.

Speaking as someone who had a fairly unpleasant experience with an unpaid, post-graduation internship. Do not recommend.
posted by annie o at 4:00 PM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

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