The Cost of Free Labor
By Maribeth Kradel-Weitzel March 29, 2011
The Cost of Free Labor
By Maribeth Kradel-Weitzel March 29, 2011
The Cost of Free Labor
By Maribeth Kradel-Weitzel March 29, 2011

Editor’s note: This op-ed was authored by Maribeth Kradel-Weitzel, president of the AIGA Philadelphia chapter, which initiated the “AIGA Philadelphia Paid Internship Pledge” in September 2010, to inform businesses about the legal requirements for internships and advocate for the fair treatment of students and designers in the workplace.

A commercial for the popular supply store Office Max aired last December featuring a small business owner working with two unpaid interns. She wonders what to get them for the holidays and settles on some items from the megastore. The gifts are so fabulous that word of her generosity spreads. A swarm of eager young workers offers up its services to this business. The commercial congratulates the woman on her excellent decision making and states, “Her reward: the gift of free labor.”

What’s wrong with this picture?

The problem is that treatment of interns, just like any member of our workforce, should be considered carefully. What is an intern? What should interns be expected do? An article by Shel Perkins explains the issues well, noting that an intern is not a volunteer and not a freelancer. For an internship to be legally unpaid, it must be primarily educational in nature and for the student’s benefit. The U.S. Department of Labor outlines six key stipulations that must be met for unpaid status to be acceptable:

  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.

The design field is not alone in having to improve its policies toward interns. Students and professionals in a range of specializations and industries are affected by this issue. But there are important reasons, in addition to the legal requirements, why compensation should be addressed by the creative workforce.

The 2010 Internship Survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) shows that interns at the bachelor’s degree level will average $17 per hour (results vary by major and industry). According to the AIGA|Aquent Survey of Design Salaries for 2010, an entry-level designer in the 50th percentile will earn $36,000 a year. Assuming a 40-hour work week, this equates to an hourly wage of $17.30. The work of designers provides significant value to business. Is our industry satisfied with our degree-bearing professionals earning the wage of an average intern? Unpaid internship positions can harm the worth a young designer might place on his or her skills, which will ultimately have far-reaching affects on salary expectations for members of an already-underpaid industry.

NACE also conducted a survey of its members specifically on the subject of unpaid internships. The association found that “unpaid internships are relatively rare among NACE employer members.” A number of respondents commented on the counterproductive impact, citing the reasons:

a. unpaid internships were essentially vehicles for corporations to exploit student labor;

b. unpaid internships were discriminatory in that poor students could not afford to take on these internships; and

c. unpaid internships were not taken as serious work experiences by either the student or the employer.

[source: NACE Research: Unpaid Internships: A Survey of the NACE Membership, May 2010, PDF]

It is critical to consider how low compensation can affect the caliber of skill and intellect within an industry. Low wages are a consistent cause of “brain drain,” whereby qualified and talented workers will shift their focus, either to another geographic area or another specialty. As Garret Hourihan, a senior creative designer for IBM, says, “If the intern cannot make it as an intern because of no pay, they may very well move onto something which actually pays, just to survive.” Bright and motivated young people are not going to devote their energy to an industry that does not financially value their contribution. Unpaid internships could force would-be designers to move into other, more lucrative fields.  

Some measure of experience is often a key factor under consideration during the hiring process, and internships are important résumé builders for students. When opportunities withhold financial compensation, a barrier exists. “Unpaid internships promote an oligarchic society,” comments AIGA Philadelphia ethics co-chair Alex Zahradnik, explaining that only a select few can afford the luxury of working without pay. This practice could remove potential opportunities for those already at a disadvantage and exclude many important voices representing all aspects of society.

So, what can be done?

Clearly, this issue is complicated. It is moral, it is legal, and it needs attention. Unfortunately, those most immediately and directly affected by this issue, the students, are very unlikely to take action on their own for fear of damaging relationships with industry contacts. It is up to more-experienced professionals to decide that this issue deserves consideration. Steven Heller, co-chair of SVA’s MFA Designer as Author program, says, “If we don't act fairly with our own progeny, how can we be respected in the business world?”

There is no doubt that interns lack experience, and businesses are looking for ways to cut costs. Difficult economic times are not an excuse for shortchanging the next generation of designers, and inability to pay does not provide exemption from ethical treatment of the workforce. As Joel Katz, AIGA Fellow and proprietor of Joel Katz Design Associates, a graphic and information design firm, states, “Interns receive valuable experience from us. They also perform tasks for us that earn us money—for that they deserve to be paid, although not at a professional level. My standard is to pay them better than they could earn at their work-study program at school. Anything less is exploitative and unethical.” Katz’s position reinforces the U.S. Department of Labor’s rule that “[deriving] an immediate advantage from the activities of an intern” precludes an unpaid internship from being acceptable.

In fall 2010, AIGA Philadelphia chose to take action by ceasing to post unpaid internships to its job board and also enacting the “AIGA Philadelphia Paid Internship Pledge.” This pledge urges individuals to publicly confirm their support for paid internship positions and the related laws created by the U.S. Department of Labor.Many employers of unpaid interns will argue that the experience and learning that occurs on the job is an equivalent exchange for free labor. I am an assistant professor of graphic design at Philadelphia University. I learn something new everyday—usually from my students. I still expect—and deserve—to get paid.

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