It is an open secret in the architectural community that most studios give out unpaid internships, but it all came into the limelight very recently after an applicant anonymously revealed the job posting for a well known Tokyo firm. The post stated that the firm expected them to work 13 hours a day, six days a week, along with bearing their cost of living, traveling, and visas. This was justified as being the norm in most offices in Japan and the rest of the world. But is it right, just because everyone is doing it?

Unpaid internships have always been the norm in architecture. Coupled with the intense working hours, and demands of output from an intern- is that truly an experience worth gaining- or a lack of recognition for honest work?

Architecture is said to be the profession of the economically privileged. We put in 5 years in education and expect to be rewarded for it in some form. Instead, the struggle gets real when we have to be supported by our parents, or student loans, just to be eligible to work. Firms that were named in the social media outburst that followed the post abovementioned have claimed that they couldn’t afford to pay their interns and that their internships were an agreed mutual exchange of time for experience. But is it really a mutually benefiting practice?

The practice of internships has come from the long-standing tradition of architects taking apprentices under their wing, and teaching them the tricks of the trade. These apprentices were usually people from a background completely different from architecture, or sometimes, no background in education whatsoever. This apprenticeship was then a mutually benefitting arrangement, wherein the architect personally taught the apprentice, and he spent all his time dedicated to learning from him so he could build his own future. This apprentice, mind you, also had no other means of learning how to master the field he was stepping into. Cut to the present time, Architects have evolved from being a one-man enterprise to a full-fledged office of practice, and they are hiring students who have all completed at least 3 years of formal education in the field of architecture. So does this archaic ‘tradition’ really hold ground anymore?

While the uproar on calling out such practices and job postings is good for the community, the debate needs to be settled once and for all. It is sad to see that even the leading practices across the world do not adequately reimburse their interns. There are a few very strong points I would like to make to anyone who justifies unpaid internships. Because all actions have consequences, it is time to face the music.

There are two kinds of interns I have encountered, in the course of my own internship:

  1. The Don’t-Care type: the kind who put in minimum effort and have no regard as to the quality of their output. Like most people in today’s world, they have a materialistic give-and-take attitude, so if they aren’t getting paid, they don’t put in an extra effort.
  2. The Care-Too-Much type: they are the interns on probation, who want to do anything they can to earn their pay if and when they finally get it. These interns have the belief that they aren’t good enough, and hence end up burning the midnight oil, often with no return, even in a simple ‘Good job’ or ‘Thanks’, forget leave for working overtime or weekends off.

Now, the thing to note is that either way, the ‘mutual benefit’ here, seems lost. An internship that is supposedly meant to teach a student the way to work in a real-life situation- you are either teaching them to slack off or to burn themselves out without expecting anything in return. We are teaching future architects to not respect the physical effort, to work insane hours without regard for any social/private life and in general become work zombies. Those that manage to survive without switching jobs or burning out are ‘rewarded’ 10 years down the line, with a partnership title, but by then it is too late, for they are now habituated to follow the same ill-management practices and the vicious cycle continues.

In today’s professional world, where architects are practicing not only design but also business tactics. There are offices that follow a standard daily working hour/monthly payment schedule, but compared to the fast-paced office that employs free overtime labor, they fall behind, in terms of competition.  The Architectural community needs to come together and pledge to provide equal pay for equal work across all job titles. Don’t hire interns if you can’t afford to pay them, but stop perpetuating the myth that unpaid work is rewarding. It is disrespectful and demeaning.

Interns are oftentimes a valuable asset to a firm, because they bring with them a greater zeal to work, a different and broader perspective, but still an impressionable mind. Architects must recognize that, reward it, and hence pave way for equality, for what starts in one’s own workplace, will be carried forward in one’s work.