Work placements – the design industry’s secret shame

>>>>>>> Note on this article: This is a provocative and very topical theme. Right now there are hundreds of graduates about to enter an industry that will not treat them very well and it’s all your fault. Well partly. <<<<<<<

Photo © Rachel Hendrick (licensed under Creative Commons)

Before I managed to get a full-time job, I spent a year doing placements at loads of different agencies, some I did for free, some I got travel expenses for, only one paid me more than minimum wage, the rest didn’t even make pay me that. I should point out that none of these placements lasted more than three weeks, but through these short internships I gained experience far beyond anything I could have learnt on my own and eventually made a contact who got me my current job.

In an industry that is widely envied for it’s liberal, almost bohemian approach to work, it’s something of an anomaly that interns at almost all studios do not get paid. This is a practice common to almost areas of business, the unpaid work experience is an entrenched tradition, but it’s strange to see design agencies, who are so often concerned with environmental issues and social ethics using the same outdated system. GOOD, which is a wonderful community of people doing good, or as they put it “people who give a damn”, recently posted up adverts on their site for internships including their graphic design and illustration departments, internships which are unpaid.

The reason I’m so annoyed by this issue is not just because I’ve been through this myself, it’s because everybody has to do internships, unless they’re really lucky. The only way to get the experience and build the contacts that will allow you to secure an actual job is through work placements. And competition has never been fiercer. What with the recession we’re now emerging from, there are graduates of two years ago going for the same junior positions as this year’s outgoing students. The creative industries are bloated with would-be designers, illustrators, writers. The level of competition means that any job opportunity is generally massively over-subscribed making it incredibly important to be seen to ‘go the extra mile’, which includes being prepared to go on internships. An example (one I’ve used before), CreativePool, the free job listings site specifically for the design industry, has at the time of writing 449 jobs listed and 64,875 registered members. Even allowing for a good percentage of those being companies advertising jobs, that’s still a huge disparity in work opportunities versus the available talent pool.

This situation will not change unless the current, incumbent generation of designers makes it so. The current job seeking graduates are not in a position to demand anything; it’s a buyers market, and if a young designer is not prepared to go on a placement for free then there are plenty who will. And I refuse to accept the argument cannot afford to take on interns and pay them. Yes, when I left uni I was not a fully rounded designer, nor was most of the work that I produced good enough for clients and I took up other designer’s time that could have been spent much more productively, but I was there trying my hardest, as are all the other interns right now.

Here’s the point; by not paying interns agencies are excluding many people from being able to afford to break into the industry. The current system is massively, unfairly, weighted in favour of people (like me) who are able to work for free. It’s that simple. The argument that “we all had to go through it” won’t wash either. In the current financial climate it’s even more important to open up access for everyone to jobs, to level the playing field. It’s a ridiculous and unequal state of affairs that can’t be ignored.

The pressure group Intern Aware have been working to persuade the UK government to make minimum wage a legal requirement for internships. I hope that before that happens, and I really hope it does happen, the design agency takes the lead and starts paying any and all work experience employees fairly. For more information and much more persuasive arguments than my semi-articulate rant go here.

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