This editorial appeared in the March 2014 issue of Contract. To read the digital edition, click here.
In recent weeks, we have seen Congress, President Obama, state legislatures, governors, mayors, and cable TV pundits debate the appropriate dollar amount for minimum wage. Politics aside, it is ironic that a vexing issue continues for design professionals: unpaid internships.
Some may be asking why I am writing an editorial about the issue now, when it was the topic of a cover story in Progressive Architecture in the early 1990s, and others in the architecture and design professions have spoken about it many times since. Well, today’s students may not be getting great advice from their professors or counselors, and likely do not know that Progressive Architecture story because it was published before many of them were born. Yet the issue persists. Now I feel old. And I hear Nirvana on classic hits stations.
But seriously, while attention has been called to unpaid internships in architecture and design for at least the last two decades, we know that the issue has not gone away. It remains, in part, due to the most recent economic recession, when firms cut resources to simply stay in business and employment opportunities dwindled. Yet a new generation of architecture and design students still needed to gain experience. So unpaid internships, rather than becoming a thing of the past, became a means for some firms to gain help and for new arrivals in the profession to get experience.
The issue is top of mind for me because I am writing this on my way to give the keynote speech at the IIDA Student Conference in Houston. One portion of my advice to the young people in the audience is this: Do no work for free, whether it is called an internship or has another title. And the advice to employers is simple: Interns must be paid or earn college credit specifically for the work they are doing.
Back to the message for the students: Gaining experience in the profession while you are still in school is critical and highly beneficial. You and what you do are highly valuable. You are worth more than zero. And, importantly, you are entering a profession. And professionals do not work for free. A profession that cares for its young compensates them appropriately. As an intern, if you are doing work that is benefitting a company or, put another way, work that another employee would have to do anyway if you were not there, then you should be paid for that work.
Examples of unpaid internships in various industries, particularly fashion and media, filled a lengthy story, “For Interns, All Work and No Payoff,” in The New York Times on February 14. Although none of the examples cited were in architecture or interior design, I encourage students, interns, and employers to read the article to know that the issue remains prevalent in many workplace settings.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor developed six new standards to help define what an unpaid internship can be: (1) Internship is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment. (2) Internship is primarily for the benefit of the intern. (3) The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision. (4) The employer derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern and, indeed, its operations may be hindered. (5) The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job upon conclusion of the internship. (6) Employer and intern understand that the intern is not entitled to payment for internship.
Must an internship meet all or just some of the standards? And how does one interpret the standards themselves? Answers to those questions are vague but, last June, a federal judge ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures—by not paying interns who worked on production of the 2010 movie “Black Swan”—violated minimum wage and overtime laws. In our industry, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has a policy that members who do not pay interns are not allowed to be officers, Fellows, recipients of the Gold Medal or other honors and awards, and cannot serve as speakers at AIA conventions or other AIA events.
The bottom line is that compensating interns recognizes their worth and value, and it is necessary in nurturing the next generation
of designers in a healthy profession.
John Czarnecki, Assoc. AIA, Hon. IIDA Editor in Chief