Internships Should be a Learning Experience Not Free Labour

I recently wrote in this blog about my thoughts on education, stating that we ought to consider traditional apprenticeships as a way of giving the younger generation an opportunity to contribute to society in a meaningful way. I wanted to follow this up by commenting on the curse that is unpaid internships or work experience placements.

Despite unpaid internships being illegal in the UK the practice continues, and is endemic. Too often I hear from design graduates that agencies ask them to join them in an unpaid internship for several months. The carrot is that they may be offered a permanent position at the end. During the internship, the young person will work on projects and actually be a productive member of staff, contributing to the agency’s margins. Yes, the intern will gain invaluable experience, but where else do they have the chance to do so other than actually working on the job? I have certainly never heard of anybody ever coming out of university fully formed.

Too often, I also hear that young people are forced to undertake a number of unpaid internships in succession, all of them in an environment where they contribute to the income of the company. This seems, at the very least, excessive. Surely, at some point, the person will have the requisite experience for gainful employment and be worth payment for their work. Do employers not understand that young people need to eat, and pay rent in the same way as everyone else?

Unpaid internships and work experience are not only a curse within the design industry, but pervade right through our entire economy. It was not too long ago that reports of government agencies enforcing unpaid work schemes for jobseekers became public. Unpaid internships cause economic hardship, but more importantly, they undermine a person’s confidence in themselves and society as a whole.

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Cosimo, our newest intern, learning the basics.

At Dalton Maag we regularly have interns, but they are learning and not working for us. We have built a thorough training program, that gives the intern an insight into how a professional digital type foundry operates. The interns are rarely involved in the production process, simply because they do not have the requisite experience to contribute commercially. For this reason we assist our interns with their living and travel expenses during their stay with us, rather than paying them a wage. Occasionally, we come across a talented person who we feel can add value to our output. In those circumstances the intern will be paid a living wage for the work they carry out under our instruction.

I believe that unpaid internships are not unlike unpaid pitches. None of us running a design agency wants to pitch for free, and many of us simply refuse to do so. So why are young people expected to work as unpaid interns? Is that not a contradiction?

Bruno Maag

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