On my first sojourn to New York City, I stayed with two friends who moved there to work in fashion. One had been interning for a household name brand with a veritable empire of high-end product lines. Let’s be clear: this fashion house had no shortage of funds or talent.
She was essentially forced to volunteer 12-hour days, six days a week, while she spent nights bartending to cover her rent. On paper, her fashion design internship was no more than 20 hours a week. She thought she’d have plenty of time to earn a living on the side, but quickly found she was required to do more than double the hours she had expected.
“If you can’t commit,” warned her supervisor, “we won’t have any trouble finding someone else.”
But her learning was invaluable, right? Well, if you count spending days dragging bolts of fabric onto the subway between the garment district and the design studio as invaluable.
In my time as a journalist/photographer since then, I’ve supervised unpaid interns myself. I’ve done my best to give them everything they need to succeed, and attempted to set up valuable connections for them. But I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling like my efforts as a supervisor were futile.
It’s a reassurance that I made the right move when I chose to avoid internships. Instead, to kick off my nascent career, I freelanced enough to have a decent portfolio before a friend of a friend told me about an internal opening at her company. I was offered the position before I finished my degree, and dropped out before I had left my teens because university was proving to be of little value. (Shout out to the University of South Australia for being more worthless than a screen door on a submarine.)
Hey, I’ll be the first to admit that at 22 (and four fifths, thank you very much), I’m no media veteran. But because I’m surrounded by friends my age who fritter their funds and resources on unpaid internships, I gathered a few key reasons why I think they’re usually a waste.
You don’t need an internship to network.
One of the commonly touted benefits of interning is the connections it can establish. I hate this idea: it lulls students into neglecting strategic networking in daily life. And let’s be frank: the people you meet as a nervous 20-year-old probably aren’t going to be impressed by the under-skilled new kid. If you can’t network efficiently in your day-to-day life, forget about networking in the workplace.
Volunteering on specific projects is more valuable.
Nowadays I limit free work to non-profit causes, but when I began, I would take on specific projects that I knew would expand my skillset, usually for a small fee. Every now and again, I put the free in freelance, but only when I knew it would provide me with just as much value as it would provide the organisation using me. So I’d calculate how much a freelancer would ordinarily be paid, and consider whether the skills I’d learn would be worth that dollar amount. For instance, if I was offered a job worth $200 for nothing, I’d ask myself if I would earn $200 worth of skills. That’s about the cost of one short course, or a few weeks of university lectures and tutorials. If the answer was yes, then I’d go ahead and take the gig.
‘When everyone’s super, no one will be.’
The bitter antagonist of The Incredibles got it right when he recognised that rarity provides value. Internships were probably great when they weren’t just another thing every university student needed for their LinkedIn profile. Indeed, my father kicked off his media career with a salaried, year-long internship which was just as competitive in the 1980s as it is now. I’d be open to completing that program today. But most internships are just a matter of plopping a poor student in front of the spare desk and crossing your fingers that you’ll be able to find something for them to do. In what world does that offer value to your CV?
Clearly, my experience is limited to the manic media industry, and I’m sure there are exceptions for hard-skills-based fields such as engineering and medicine. But for those hard-working aspirants to the ‘glamour industries’ of media, entertainment and arts, this is my advice: if you don’t value your own time and skills, don’t expect any company to do the same.
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