The debate about unpaid internships in for-profit organizations gained attention throughout 2014. Students, teachers and professionals paid close attention to the lawsuits brought against Fox Searchlight and Hearst Magazines. The judges in both cases agreed that the work done by the interns was of no educational benefit to the students and was in direct financial benefit to companies. Although the companies argued that the students learned about the work environment, the judges were right in declaring that this is a benefit every employee gains from working in an office, intern or not.
Different sources ranging from teachers to journalist have shared their opinions about unpaid internships, but I haven’t seen a student’s point of view on the matter. After some research, and as a currently paid intern, I must say that I see no worth in taking an unpaid internship at a for-profit company. There are several reasons that apply to general unpaid programs, but some translate more directly to an advertising career.
From a psychological point of view, performing a task without a reward is discouraging. This is particularly harmful when you are trying to prove to yourself and your employer that you are worthy of a good salary, a great position and a managing position further down your career. A salary is not a benefit, it's one of the basic rewards that motivates us to do our job. Personally, I appreciate that I have a paying internship in this economy, and that pushes me to do my best. I’m not sure how hard I would work if my internship wasn’t paid, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be the same effort.
Of course, a salary motivates us up to a certain point, there are also other factors that push us to work hard, such as vocation and ambition. However, these are concepts far less tangible than an actual compensation, which is psychologically significant.
From a legal standpoint, unpaid internships are also rigged to fail. According to the standing regulations an employer “derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.” This clause states in basic terms that the employer should not expect much of the intern either. Now, we have a deterred employee and a job that won’t challenge him.
In advertising, unpaid internships have developed into more meaningful programs that will not make you bring coffee or make infinite copies. Some agencies, as you'll see below, have developed programs that aim to train up-and-coming professionals. Although a full-time position is not promised, it is a great way to get your feet wet in the real world and meet some professionals while you are working on a project that is indeed related to your career.
72U is a great example. This program, organized by 72 and Sunny, unites several students with different skills to develop projects that will end in your portfolio and might even get you an award. The program, as said in their website "aims to develop talent for the agency and for the industry. Although there’s no guarantee of employment, the agency does try to hire as many 72U graduates as possible."
Apart from 72U, there are other programs that offer this kind of experience:
Built as an apprenticeship, this program will immerse you into the life of a small design studio in Chicago, where the FIrebelly studio is located. The program receives 10 students with the desire to learn about design how to put it into practice.
Unlike Camp Firebelly, this program works more like a university. Their main goal is to attract graduates who want to learn about entrepreneurship and other tools needed to start or improve their own businesses.
As their website explains, this is an experiment within a school within a agency. What they do and how they do it is a little of a mystery. However, it's a program dedicated to advertising and creativity and, if you’re one of the lucky 12, you’ll be learning from one of the most important independent agencies in the world.
Unpaid internships at for-profit organizations are not worth the time of a college student, especially at big, important companies such as the ones being sued. Good offers do not necessarily come from the big companies anymore. Startups offer interesting, fun, challenging and PAID internships and may even have the same likelihood of landing you a full-time position.
It's important to clarify that I talk here about positions in for-profit organizations. If your drive is community or public service, non-profits and government agencies might offer unpaid internships given the different financial models they work on. If you are interested in those, I'm sure you will have the opportunity to help in meaningful way and do things that will make people's lives better. This is where vocation and volunteerism play their parts.
Nevertheless, if you are taking the path of an unpaid internship, don’t lose hope. Consider how lucky you are from simply being inside an ad agency and how much you will learn from this experience. To get the most out of it I would advise that you politely ask your boss to consider you for projects that might be good portfolio material. Additionally, I would try my best to network with everyone in the office, including the clients. Doing this might open new doors down the line. So hang in there, and promise yourself that you will do the best work possible and demonstrate that you deserve a spot in the industry.