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Rants and Wisdom




In Rants and Wisdom

By lthomas

No. Unpaid. Interns. Ever.

On 26, Mar 2018 | 3 Comments | In Rants and Wisdom | By lthomas

Period. So simple, yet obviously for many, a bit difficult to comprehend. And I do not understand why.

I approach this issue from two distinct perspectives. One, that of a small business owner who has been through the challenging economic times as much as anyone. And two, that of a Mom watching her son navigate those seemingly ‘required’ unpaid internships in the creative industries. From both perspectives, I think that unpaid internships are a terrible, terrible idea. Indeed, as written by Juliet Lapidos in her essay, “Working for Nothing,” in The New York Times: “Unpaid internships are, at best, ethically iffy” and “legally…murky.”

Did you hear that Sheryl Sandberg?  Sandberg is Facebook’s COO, and author of Lean In. Her foundation was recently caught advertising for an unpaid internship.  How about not “leaning on” interns?

In my small office, I have consistently paid interns. I find that most architecture student interns are incredibly valuable and come into our office day one with strong creative, graphic and problem solving skills—and ready to learn more. No, they are not ready to design a building, but they certainly are a resource providing real value. Therefore, they should be compensated for their work effort, shouldn’t they? I wonder how these interns can learn the value of their education and effort if we don’t pay them.

I have heard the counter-argument that creative-type firms just can’t afford to pay for this labor force.  Nonsense! Any firm who can’t afford to pay an intern minimum wage for a few months should reevaluate its business plan. And do we buy this argument from large corporate firms, publications and artistic producers who have deep pockets despite crying poor? I certainly do not.  We business owners should value our services enough to charge rates to cover the work and effort that goes into it–and show our employees, including student interns, that a job is a two way commitment, one in which a services, a value, is reliably provided and, as a result, the provider is fairly compensated.

As a mother, I’ve watched my son’s struggle prior to graduating with a degree in advertising from Boston University. During his four years in school in Boston, he worked (and I mean really worked) at several unpaid internships, and no, he did not receive course credit for this participation. Indeed, he asked to be paid for this “required” work.  However, it was made clear to him by his faculty that these internships were critical for getting that all important first job in the creative industry— much more so than his GPA or portfolio. And so he “worked” (unpaid), while also working a paid, 20-hour per week gig as a Starbucks barista in order to earn much-needed money for school expenses, all while carrying his course load. It was unnecessarily difficult, stressful and perhaps, illegal. It was just wrong.

I truly believe that only the wealthy or those with other means of financial support can afford to take an unpaid internship, even for the much-needed “experience.” Getting paid for your value is a good thing, and no one should build their business on the backs of free labor. Really, Sheryl.

To find the best and most creative future employees, and for the benefit of those following me into this profession, I keep it simple: No. Unpaid. Interns. Ever.


  1. Kelly McFadden

    For the past two summers, I have had a wonderful experience interning for Melville Thomas. As a young architect, I know the skills I had, and those developed at the firm were appreciated. Thanks to Laura, George, and my colleagues, I have developed a confidence I can carry back to school and into my early career.

  2. Josh Thomas

    Beautifully written…

    If only more creative firms believed this the beginning of my career would of been much smoother!

  3. Adam Smillie

    I very much agree. Unpaid internships are on the rise across the board, and the lowly serfs are beginning to fight back. This summer, a NY judge ruled in favor of a couple of interns who worked on the movie Black Swan, arguing that the interns performed the same tasks as regular employees (and thus were nothing more than free labor) rather than an unpaid internship’s “primary benefit test”, in which “the internship’s benefits to the intern outweigh the benefits to the engaging entity”. I don’t know for sure, but I doubt very much that Josh’s internships met this criteria (ironically, I feel that all of my paid internships did, but I work in a very different industry with very different cultural expectations).

    Also…nice blog!

    Article link:

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