An internship is something that is ambiguous and difficult to define. It sits between part-time college-job and entry-level career, it hovers with uncertainty between university and employability, and although it serves an invaluable function, its application is somewhat slippery.
For many with an arts background, knowledge and experience gained can be perceived as theoretical, and with a lack of practical activation, fresh-faced graduates are left unprepared and under-skilled. The solution it seems is internships. Some have found that internships are indicative of what not to do, rather than a fine tuning of already fine-tuned skills. Others are unpaid, and it is difficult to decipher the line between unpaid work that is exploitative and advantageous, and unpaid work that is beneficial. Many are willing to take on internships that are of no educational value, and which ask of them only menial tasks, simply to get a foot in the door of an unyielding industry.
Internship regulations differ from place to place, some without any at all. In Britain, “if an intern is classed as a worker, then they’re normally due the National Minimum Wage,” the distinction between worker, volunteer, and employee is emphasised, but the label intern has no legal status. In the Netherlands and Spain interns are not entitled to payment, but people are prohibited from entering into an unpaid internship once they step over the threshold of graduation. In France, if an internship lasts longer than two months, companies are required to pay their interns a minimum of €554 per month. On the Employment Rights Ireland website, it states that “there is no statutory definition” for what an intern is, leaving it to companies to decide – there is no universal solution. The independent organisation, Visual Artists Ireland (VAI), released Best Practice Guidelines for Internships in 2014; defining the internship, providing a sample confidentiality agreement and a checklist of expectations, supporting both the creative employer and prospective intern.
We decided that in order to dissect a worldly perspective, we would have to interview a range of candidates who have completed internships across the globe. It seems that, regulations or not, there is no common thread, no two internships can be experienced the same.
During his dissertation at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) Andrew McLoughlin interned for Hunter Communications in Dublin, a PR agency that required him to work unpaid for three months, over 5 days, from 9am to 6pm. This in turn forced him to work weekends in retail to earn a living. He then moved to New York and worked nine hours a day, three days a week for Valentino accessories, which “was a remarkably better experience”, but again unpaid. Andrew completed smaller internships before these, and is exemplary of someone who jumped from internship to internship without seeing any beneficial results.
Closer to home, Katie Kidd had a somewhat different experience. After her graduate exhibition piqued the interest of the creative team at Boys & Girls, Katie was offered the opportunity of a three month internship as a junior art director at the Dublin based advertising agency. By the end of which, Katie was offered a permanent position and had a bustling portfolio of work to show for it, from Amnesty International to Dulux. Katie states that; “It was more than a stepping stone – I was very fortunate to be interning in exactly the job I wanted to do.”
Patrice Winn, a Fashion Journalism and Marketing graduate of the University of Arts London, landed herself an internship at Lurve Magazine in London, a bi-annual fashion and photography publication, which she juggled between a a part-time job and her second year of college. An unpaid and unregulated internship that lasted six months, with no set hours and no paid expenses, that asked of her menial tasks such as collecting and dropping clothes for fashion shoots, “it was the height of the summer heat and in a tube strike, they made me carry so many clothes I could barely carry it all. I remember calling my boyfriend and crying.” Even in a cultural hub such as London, where the arts are admired and encouraged, and where internships are regarded as something of worth, they are still used and abused by established companies as free labour.
Elsewhere in Barcelona, two friends had varied perspectives. Marta Vidal completed a one-month-long internship in the Sander Wassink studio in the Dutch design capital of Eindhoven, which was unpaid but provided the bonus of lunch. The structure in the Netherlands is that internships and studying go hand in hand, and although this might sound overwhelming, for Marta it was an exceptional experience, and in the long run eliminates the expectation of internship hopping after university.
Jorge Errando had a similar experience whilst interning as a graphic designer in the research department of Elisava University, Barcelona. The internship lasted five months, he was paid €300 a month and medical insurance was covered. “I thought my time could be invested in more interesting projects and work”, although the experience was unfulfilling for Jorge, he was given responsibility that applied to his interests and career prospects.
There are a selection of online platforms that broach the subject of internships head on, from Lecture in Progress, created by Will Hudson and Alex Bec, renowned for building the Hudson & Bec empire (It’s Nice That, Anyways, etc.). Their “aim is to empower emerging talent with information and first-hand accounts that demystify the day-to-day workings of the creative world,”. Lecture in Progress features an array of advice, job roles, offers and promotions, a directory of podcasts, online magazines, and useful YouTube channels. Comparatively, there is The Design Kids (TDK), “an online resource for student and graduate Graphic Designers, to help you get a kick ass job in the design industry.” TDK provide design directories, interviews, and a City Host in each city, which helps to present content that is more relevant and accessible.
By a product of his own frustration, Alex Dudson, brought the online platform and printed publication, Intern magazine, to life to tackle the topic of Internships head on. The magazine covers content that is about interns by interns and for interns, with topics debated through numerous viewpoints. “Through a variety of perspectives we host a balanced, unbiased and frank discussion,” viewing people’s perspectives on a global scale, whether good or bad, helps us to define what an internship should be.
A more positive example of an Irish internship in practice is Three x 3, which offers three Visual Communication graduates a full-time paid internship, that runs from October until June each year. Launched in 2007, by three leading design studios Atelier David Smith, Detail and Zero-G – selected interns spend three months in each design studio, giving them a more rounded and valuable experience. Another example is Foam Lab, an extension of Foam Fotografiemuseum, Amsterdam. A team is compiled of recent graduates from a broad range of backgrounds, and given almost free-reign to “rejuvenate and renew” the museum, assigning each individual with relevant projects. They are paid a monthly fee of €485 and provided with their own space in the attic of the museum, creating responsibility while simultaneously working in collaboration with museum staff, fusing education and practical experience.
If Ireland wants a thriving arts industry, if we want to equip our creatives with lifelong skillsets, to eliminate the necessity of being forced to vacate this island for better career prospects then this ambiguity needs to be addressed. The waters in which internships tread need not be so murky. There needs to be adequate training beyond university, opportunities instilled in workplaces to facilitate graduates, positions that are designed to shape a thriving workforce, rather than positions that cater as free and exploitative labour for employers eradicating the presence of entry level opportunities.
And how do we achieve this? Rather than encouraging exploitative labour, we need to support those that are emerging in their fields, whether it is by facilitating mentorship programmes or encouraging those at the top of the ladder to be more attentive to those at the bottom, there are ways. And at least by stimulating discussion we can begin to achieve this.
Claudia Mannix is a student of Trinity College Dublin, who is undertaking the International Degree in History of Art & Architecture and French. In her spare time, she drinks copious amounts of coffee, works in Industry & Co. and supports the Above the Fold team on live events.