April 3, 2010

The Issue of Unpaid Internships


When I read this article at nytimes.com today, entitled "Growth of Unpaid Internships May Be Illegal, Officials Say," I immediately considered the ramifications for the fashion and publishing industries. Essentially, the article states that:
With job openings scarce for young people, the number of unpaid internships has climbed in recent years, leading federal and state regulators to worry that more employers are illegally using such internships for free labor...To be sure, many internships involve some unskilled work, but when the jobs are mostly drudgery, regulators say, it is clearly illegal not to pay interns.
My good friend Danielle over at Final Fashion has already blogged about breaking into the fashion industry and the issue of internships, and I stated my opinions on the issue when she interviewed me for that post.

What I do think is interesting about this news article is the government's attempt to really crack down on the use of interns as "free labor," which I think is more common in creative industries with lower knowledge-based barriers to entry such as fashion and film. (I always found it outrageous when my business, math and engineering friends made more money on their internships than I could expect to make as an entry-level worker in the creative industries, but that's another story for another day!)

While I have learned so much from the designer studio and fashion magazine internships that I have been able to do, I can understand how the industry's reliance on unpaid interns could be problematic, especially when I look at certain independent magazines' editorial mastheads and notice that there are more interns than employees listed.
One Ivy League student said she spent an unpaid three-month internship at a magazine packaging and shipping 20 or 40 apparel samples a day back to fashion houses that had provided them for photo shoots.
The question is, of course, whether this time spent shipping samples was educational or an example of a company taking advantage of "free labor," and the issue is more nuanced than it may first appear. For example, how educational and beneficial an internship is to an individual depends on their circumstances going into it, the corporate stance on interns (disposable or a resource to be nurtured and eventually hired), and the individual intern's supervisor's commitment to mentoring and teaching on the job. Perhaps this Ivy League student was learning about the editorial process and allowed to assist on photo shoots whenever she wasn't doing returns! (And for the record, 20 or 40 samples per day is a fairly slow pace, and she was lucky not to be physically schlepping samples around the city!)

In any case, it will be interesting to see how regulators will process with this issue. Already, in the past five years I've noticed that most internships now require college credit (to provide and confirm that educational slant), which is great in theory...but in practice means that some students feel as if they are actually "paying" (for the school credit or internship course) to intern for free, and recent graduates who didn't attend school in an urban area and don't have a dozen internships on their resume are unable to gain much needed experience to be more competitive.

What do you think about unpaid internships in general (not just in fashion)? 

(Note: Fashion magazine closet image via.)

11 comments:

Marcus said...

i've been interning at fashion houses for the past two years (all unpaid) and while i keep telling myself that it will all pay off i'm growing a bit frustrated because it is in fact, NOT paying.

all of my friends in different industries are paid or at least compensated in some way. while i do enjoy the occasional gifted runway sample it doesn't make up for the fact that i can't support myself.

Anonymous said...

I interned for rodarte it was horrible! I should file a complaint.
Rude, drove around, picked up coffee and food. VERY ABUSIVE

lola said...

The biggest problem w unpaid internships is the majority of companies don't teach anything. In banking, for example, an intern is an entry level employee and learns those skills so when they graduate they have a job offer and can hit the ground running. Creative internships are primarily helpers that don't always get the training they need to be effective employees. Occassionaly helping on a photo shoot doesn't teach you how to be a stylist if the rest of your days are spent in the sample closet or getting starbucks.

fashion in theory said...

I guess it's hard because I've told interns outright that they should look at the internship as a learning experience and a resume filler rather than an opportunity to get a job at the exact same place...because some companies simply have more interns than they can ever eventually hire.

On the other hand, I've had at least 3 different internships that started off unpaid end up as freelance or paid opportunities.

Thanks for the comments guys!

Alexandra Suhner Isenberg said...

I agree that unpaid interns are often taken advantage of, and rarely lead to jobs.

I began as an intern at Sonia Rykiel, and ended up with a job on the design team because I was super motivated and worked very hard. That was not at all unusual at the time in France. France also has regulations in place (at least they did when I was there) where you had to pay interns (it was about a quarter of minimum wage, but it was at least something) and an intern had to be within one year of completing some sort of higher education. That meant you couldn't be an intern for years on end, and it also meant they were quite serious about who they selected, and there was only ever one intern per department.

I think the current problem comes down to the fact that ever since celebrities got interested in fashion and reality television glamorized the fashion industry, everyone wants to work in fashion. That means there are tons more higher education courses to get people into fashion, but there is a declining number of jobs in the industry. (I live in Vancouver and there are six fashion schools here, but only a handful of design jobs.) As a result, people are getting competitive, and therefore willing to work for free for long periods of time, knowing that if they leave, there are one hundred people who are willing to take their place. Basically, for anyone wanting to break into the industry these days, it sucks.
Here are my tips: Persevere. Be shit hot at what you do. Know the fashion industry inside out. Learn a useful language (useful meaning Spanish, Mandarin, Russian, etc…) and be willing to relocate. There are tons of jobs in China, and there will be more and more to come, not only is there a a huge amount of manufacturing there, but there is also a lot of money. The days of Paris/New York/Milan dominating the industry are over…big brands may be based there… but their business will be in the BRIC countries.

fashion in theory said...

Thanks for your comment Alexandra. Good tips too for our reader.

I think the issue is that even if we do everything "right" that doesn't guarantee success - it's a numbers game and about connections and location and financial resources also...which sucks!

I love my interns but it's tougher ever year out there.

kathleen said...

It only makes sense that math and engineering interns could earn money for at least two reasons. One, their knowledge base is quantifiable and readily measured. Second, they're far from being commodities. Neither of which apply to fashion.

I worry about the fashion bubble and the inevitable and increasing dismay of grads who will never find jobs. Just as LA Law created a law school bubble, as has Project Runway each to social detriment. In the case of law, the US has become more litigious. With fashion, it is precisely at a time with greater outsourcing then ever, that there is greater interest.

Finally, I fret for grads who are deserving of opportunities but do not have the luxury of working for free. If interning is a graduation requirement, leveling the playing field is the last thing that the educational system is providing.

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MKS said...

I have interned at showrooms in NYC and none of it led to a paid position at the showroom. I learned a lot from my internship but it was beginning to get difficult for me because I didn't have enough money to fund myself with an unpaid internship. This is really tricky some internships you do learn a lot but others are degrading. I was reading somewhere that these internships especially if they are a for profit company (which they all are) are required to compensate you even if its a course credit internship. I am just disappointed in the fashion industry that they have really taken advantage of interns because it's free. The paid people working to train the interns to do some of the work aren't really taking out SOO MUCH of their time to train. Those of you have interned should know. If industries keep this up they will get a backlash.

Anonymous said...

Working in fashion is a hobby-carear for the wealthy. It's an exclusive industry that only survives because rich people can afford to send their children off to work unpaid.

From the internships I've done, it's very clear that very few fashion houses would exist if it wasn't for 'free labour'. Some fashion houses have more interns than paid staff. They have tens and tens of interns working away until 10pm, sometimes 4am in the morning. They are manipulated and treated very very badly and don't provide any safety equipment. With all respect, no matter how talented and a genius you are or may have been, this system of "free labour" and abuse of interns cannot be accepted.

Anonymous said...

With the shit the interns had to deal with, it is totally unfair! I was lucky enough to intern for a very nice and laid back designer that didn't make me do so much stuff! And he actually took the time to teach me stuff. But for the people that wasn't lucky enough, I feel for them. The pictures you had were very scary since its actually what people usually have to deal with.