Today, the world of professional, often corporate, work is built on a foundation of internships. It includes industries in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as well as the often misunderstood creative industries. There is a big difference between the STEM fields and the creative sector though when it comes to these internships. Internships are most often paid in the STEM fields and have been so for years, while those in the creative sector get excused with having their work go by unpaid. Having unpaid positions as entry-level jobs in creative fields assumes that we function in a society where financial support are of no issue. However, this is oftentimes not the case and actually contributes to a harmful cycle that is almost impossible to break. Let me explain.
Young adults are told so many different justifications for unpaid work. They include: unpaid work for school credit; unpaid work to gain exposure; unpaid work as a means of proving you’re worth the future money; unpaid work as an opportunity to meet future full-time employers… the list goes on. Those with connections—or information channels—in the industry of their choice get first dibs on the available positions and by securing internships and co-ops, individuals build their social capital. We’ve heard it a thousand times: it’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know. So, the more value your network has, the more social capital you have, thus opening yourself up to more industry channels. The more channels in the industry you have, the more options you have of better (maybe even paid) work experiences. The more work experience you have, the wider your network becomes, ultimately leading to even more job opportunities and more financial/social capital… the wheel just keeps spinning.
Taking an unpaid internship means you need to be able to afford to work for free. The wheel doesn’t break for those who are fortunate to have savings put to the side, or perhaps more precarious means of income. But, for those who are less financially flexible, the wheel suddenly becomes open on one end, spitting out those who are unable to continue without financial support. Without money, people are unable to take on unpaid jobs. Without the unpaid jobs, people are less likely to meet professionals, network, build up their social capital, and develop those previously mentioned information channels in the industry.
This break in the wheel not only affects those without money, but those who were born into a certain race or gender. For anyone without a long history of privileged family members who have access to these elusive industries, it might prove even more difficult to convince others they are just as capable, despite the lack of a gifted reputation. Similarly, women are still facing a wage gap today which seems to reflect the old and outdated idea that women don’t need to support themselves financially.
Additionally, paid employees within companies that hire unpaid interns find themselves and their salaries undercut since the minimum pay is literally set at $0.00. Unpaid workers are sometimes promoted with new tasks to do, which is oftentimes framed as a reward for a job well done. However, since no proper training or explanation is usually ever provided, mistakes are made. Those mistakes are then in need of being fixed by those who are paid (taking time out of their days and away from their own jobs with no additional pay). Meanwhile, the intern is given a bad review or even let go; blaming their lack of competence, cutting off their network lines and built-up reputation. Suddenly, the internship that was once full of learning experiences with allowed hiccups, has much higher stakes and less room for those hiccups. Any talk of pay or a raise in environments this tense is non-existent. Want pay? We’ll find someone else who’s okay with not getting paid. Want a raise? We’ll find someone who will be glad to work for the amount you’re getting. It’s a competitive environment. Small jobs are easy to learn, talent is becoming abundant, and employees are easy to replace.
That said, internships are important. They are extremely important. They DO provide young adults with experience, opportunities to learn, and are a method to build up social capital and improve one’s career. But, internships in the creative industries must be evaluated on the same level as any other internship in any other STEM field. By continuing to support unpaid work, interns, educational institutions, and companies involved prevent any kind of attempt at legitimizing creative work, any kind of growth in the fields of real ethnic, cultural, and gender diversity, all the while undervaluing the current paid employees and their efforts.
The creative industries not only reflect, but shape the wider society. So the real question is: how can we systematically stop unpaid internships? And if we do, will they break the exclusivity cycle of the creative industries and beyond?
Stay in the loop for all things Common by joining our newsletter!