Design internships
05 June 2016

We've been interviewing for a junior–mid level designer at work over the last couple of weeks, and I've noticed a worrying trend that many of the juniors have been through unpaid internships.

A quick search for graphic design internships in The Loop and Pedestrian shows a bunch of unpaid internship positions with quite similar characteristics:

  • Around 6 to 12 weeks part time
  • No salary
  • Expenses covered (usually travel/lunch)
  • Intern provides their own laptop

In return, the intern gets things like the opportunity to work on real client projects, portfolio content, references, and credit against educational placement/work experience requirements.

I've been peripherally aware that internships have become increasingly common in Australia over the last few years. To a certain degree it makes sense that careers with predominantly academic educational pathways would benefit from vocational style on-the-job training and experience. But, like apprenticeships, internships are based on an exchange of services for experience between the student and the employer, and I think for me the devil really lies in the details of whether that exchange is equitable and fair for everyone involved.

What's the problem?

I'm not quite sure how I feel about the growing culture of internships in Australia. They can offer very junior practitioners amazing opportunities for exposure to some of our best work places, but there's also very little oversight. The power dynamic is significantly in favour of the employer, so an intern who feels they are not getting enough of an educational outcome, or are being exploited, is unlikely to say anything (and with such little work experience, might not even recognise it).

When it comes to unpaid internships, the opportunity for exploitation is magnified. Even under the best of circumstances, unpaid positions are more likely to be filled by people who can afford the costs of prolonged unpaid work, and are going to skew toward the already socially and financially privileged.

Expectations of speculative work are a long running issue in the design industry, and I think that if we're going to go down the intern route, then as an industry we need to practice what we preach and do it ethically, with equitable, diverse, and inclusive, mutually beneficial programs.

Hang on, is that even legit?

In Australia, internships are covered by the Fair Work Act, under which unpaid internships are legal as long as no "employment relationship" exists. The act offers several guides on determining whether an intern is actually an employee:

  • Reason for the arrangement: Internships are for training, not cheap labour. The more productive the work, the more likely the intern is an employee.
  • Duration: Generally the longer the internship, the more likely an employee relationship exists.
  • Significance to the business: If the intern is doing work that needs to be done by the business, or would otherwise be done by a paid employee, it’s more likely the intern is an employee.
  • Who’s getting the benefit? The intern should get the main benefit from the arrangement. If an employer gets real business benefit from engaging the person, it’s more likely the person is an employee.

Based on that, I think it's fair to say that a lot of the unpaid internships above are playing it pretty close to the line.

So here's the thing

When it comes down to it, internships should be about education. For businesses it's about contributing to the development and future of their industry by offering training and support to the next generation as they enter the workforce.

To have an intern program, a business needs both the resources to provide mentorship and guidance to new practitioners, and to care enough to want to do so. Some businesses will have the will, but not the resources. That's cool, no one's going to judge — just don't have interns.