The ubiquity of unpaid internships in architecture, despite their questionable legality, was once again brought to light last year by controversies over unpaid interns working on the 2019 Serpentine Pavilion as well as leaked reports of similar programs in world-renowned firms.
With the widespread use of social media and the internet, there has never been a better time for dissenting voices to inform, amplify, and spark serious debate or action on this issue. Instagram pages and Twitter movements as ‘Archishame’, ‘#unpaidinternships’, or ‘#archislavery’ dedicated to calling out firms with unpaid internship programs have gained a great deal of support from students, activists, and some practitioners.
Unfortunately, there is still insufficient actionable information on their pervasiveness within the industry or regarding the exploitation endured by interns due to fears of marginalization, coupled with their widespread acceptance by the architectural fraternity. In the current economic climate, young graduates and students worldwide may find it difficult to obtain paid work experience and turn to unpaid internships in desperation. Within this scenario, what impression does the continued acceptance of this age-old practice give to budding architects, and how does it reflect upon the architectural profession?
Students and graduates develop the raw design and representational skills in college, however, without formal work experience, they may require months of training before they contribute towards the company’s bottom line due to a lack of confidence and professional expertise. Hence, employers and students alike now view unpaid internships as ‘paying your dues’ in an inherently unfair system. Major architectural offices regularly utilize unpaid workers, along with startups that heavily rely on them to improve profitability.
Most internships serve as trial periods for firms to assess individuals under the pretext of future employment offers. Compensation for unpaid interns is marketed as an exchange of experience and references in return for their contributions, which are initially below those of salaried employees. While this may seem harmless at first, the potential for exploitation escalates over time as interns grow into their roles, take on more responsibility and eventually approach the output levels of their salaried counterparts, often without any compensation or concrete guarantee of employment afterward.
Hence, some interns may deign to ingratiate themselves with employers to secure paid roles, by taking on extra work or staying later than their colleagues, which fuels the unhealthy habits of extended work hours associated with architecture. It also imbibes interns with the idea of professional advancement not solely hinging upon merit, but also requiring considerable self-sacrifice for the company through unpaid labour, eventually passed on to future subordinates. The responsibility falls on employers and governing bodies to enforce labour laws and ensure that this erroneous cycle does not persist.
Paid interns are usually more satisfied with their experiences and organizations are more invested in developing them as future assets. However, many interns may prioritize aspects like work environments, skill development, personal relationships, and advancement opportunities overpay, and unpaid interns may be equally satisfied with their experiences based on those criteria. (Beebe et al. 2009)
Additionally, the burden of making the experience worthwhile is essentially on employers when there is no remuneration involved. Unpaid internships might offer more flexible work schedules and assignments (DiRenzo 2016) but occasionally include menial tasks that do not cater to professional development. Although remuneration isn’t always conducive to a fulfilling internship, providing some financial compensation to interns will discourage workplace exploitation, reduce economic barriers, and incentivize firms to invest in their development.
An intern’s work also constitutes highly-skilled labour, requiring significant financial investment on their part to develop necessary skills, which may also provide creative insight that differs from a firm’s conventions. (Thompson 2012) Undergraduate architecture programs are among the longest and most exorbitantly expensive courses worldwide, excluding the supplementary cost of living expenses, course materials, and technological aids. As the current bar on digital representation skills among graduates rises to match those of professionals, asking such individuals to work without pay discredits the 4-5 years spent in university honing these skills and reinforces the flawed notion that degrees don’t add value to career prospects.
Regrettably, firms justify unpaid internship and ‘open desk’ programs by comparison with the old institution of apprenticeships. Despite acting as vital stepping-stones for master architects such as Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, or Le Corbusier – who lacked university degrees, those equating such an archaic practice to current employment standards display an alarming lack of awareness. The minimum qualifying standard for entry-level jobs or paid internships has risen significantly, requiring both university degrees and prior work experience, whereas apprentices often had little or no formal training. This unnecessary and absurd benchmark of ‘requiring experience to gain experience’ contributes towards students accepting unpaid posts to boost resumes for future internships.
Apprentices were also usually given lodging, which is seldom the case nowadays. Presently, most architectural firms are concentrated within major cities that have seen astronomical rises in living costs in recent years. Requiring interns to relocate, cover their food, lodging, and transport costs while working without compensation, constructs regional and economic barriers that restrict less privileged interns from working outside their hometowns or forces them to work additional hours elsewhere to cover expenses. (Silva 2020) The situation worsens for interns from developing nations that seek internships in developed ones, as the added costs of travel and visas ensure that only those with parental financial support, grants, loans, or secondary incomes can pursue such opportunities. (Silva 2020)
All of this consolidates the elitism and classism that pervades the architectural profession and strengthens its financial barriers of entry. Most architectural firms argue that they aren’t profitable enough to pay all interns, but this begs inquiry on how the onus of financial management isn’t on the organizations themselves. Why must interns take the fall and learn from an organization that can’t afford to pay all their workers a minimum wage?
Fortunately, there are encouraging signs from firms such as Elemental or Sou Fujimoto Architects that scrapped their unpaid internship programs, or RIBA’s ultimatum to Junya Ishigami’s studio which stipulated that only paid employees could work on the 2019 Serpentine Pavilion.
Furthermore, campaigns by the AIA, RIBA’s disavowal of unpaid internships, and clamouring activism in the digital sphere over the past decade have shown that the movement against this insidious practice is gaining steam. It is time for graduates, firms, and governing bodies of architecture across the world to follow suit, break down the barriers of privilege that hinder aspiring architects, and show them that their time, insight, and skills are valuable to the community.
- Ashley Beebea, Abigail Blaylock b, Kaye D. Sweetser c,∗ (2009) Job Satisfaction In Public Relations Internships, Public Relations Review 35 (2009) 156–158
- Derek Thompson (2012) Unpaid Internships: Bad for Students, Bad for Workers, Bad for Society, The Atlantic.
- DiRienzo, Denise F.(2016) Student Perceptions of Unpaid Internships in the Arts, Entertainment, and Media Industry: A Survey of Lower-Income Students’ Ability to Participate in Internships Education Doctoral. Paper 258.
- Andrew Silva (2020) Unpaid Internships And Equality Of Opportunity: A Pseudo-Panel Analysis Of UN Data, Applied Economics Letters, DOI: 10.1080/13504851.2020.1808571