A movement to make internships fairer

Although the U.S. economy faltered in 2008, it is now slowly improving. Demand for design work is increasing, but there are so many young designers seeking to join the workforce each year (approximately 14,000 from four-year programs alone) that junior design jobs are highly competitive and salaries remain relatively flat.

Even many busy design firms are not hiring, perhaps because principals have vivid memories of staff layoffs during the economic contraction. Needless to say, this raises the issue of internships—and whether or not they should be paid.

The federal government is unequivocal on this issue: if internships at profit-making companies are to be unpaid, they must demonstrate an educational experience geared toward the interests of the intern, not the firm. To determine whether for-profit private sector interns must be paid the minimum wage and overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the U.S. Department of Labor has outlined six criteria that must be applied:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

If all of these factors are met, an employment relationship does not exist under the FLSA, and the act’s minimum wage and overtime provisions do not apply to the intern. Interns know they are starting at the bottom, yet they are often willing to put in long hours, working harder for lower wages. They are seeking educational experience and respect—and like it or not, money has become a key measure of respect.

An internship—distinct from a training or volunteer position—should not only be paid, but it should be advertised in a transparent manner and open to all applicants. It should not result in the displacement of existing employees.

Today’s interns are becoming organized. Intern Labor Rights, a New York–based group, is committed to raising awareness of intern rights, and the Fair Pay Campaign is mobilizing demonstrations on campuses in an effort to convince colleges to stop steering students into unpaid internships.

The intern rights movement picked up steam this summer following a June ruling that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated federal and New York minimum wage laws by employing two interns to work on the film Black Swan for no pay. Headlines since then announced that former interns are also pursuing litigation for unpaid wages and violating labor laws at Columbia Records/Sony Music Holdings, MTV/Viacom, Donna Karan International, Major League Baseball, Condé Nast and Gawker Media, among others.

In an effort to uphold the value of design, support better business practices and encourage meaningful experiences for interns, AIGA Philadelphia is challenging all private sector businesses to make a pledge to honor the law and fairly compensate the design students they may employ in the future. If you are interested in learning more about intern rights, see the Paid Internship Pledge on AIGA.org.

About the Author: Richard Grefé is the director emeritus of AIGA, the professional association for design, the oldest and largest professional association of designers in the United States representing the interests of 27,000 designers working in a variety of communication media and dimensions, ranging from type and book designers to new media and experience designers. AIGA, o ver twenty years under Ric’s aegis, has become a leading advocate for the value of designing, as a way of thinking and as a means of creating strategic value for business, the civic realm and social change. Currently he is teaching “Human-centered designn for social change” at Wesleyan University. Ric earned a BA from Dartmouth College in economics, worked in intelligence in Asia, reported from the Bronx County Courthouse for AP, wrote for Time magazine on business and the economy and then earned an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. Following an early career in urban design and public policy consulting, Ric managed the association responsible for strategic planning and legislative advocacy for public television and led a think tank on the future of public television and radio in Washington.