The Intern Catch-22

The Intern Catch-22

It’s the ultimate driver of architectural competitions and, these days, architectural work. The unpaid (or underpaid) internship.

It’s become a staple of architecture. A rite of passage, despite the debt burden from an education that usually costs more than $30,000 a year. And it’s not just small struggling firms. Even top architects get their work done by interns.

Never mind that offering unpaid internships excludes those not wealthy enough to go without pay, or just the fact that they are generally not legal. Not offering money lowers the bar all the way down the line. Soon unpaid positions become expected. The value of architecture is lowered even further.

Will Wright, director of government and public affairs at AIA/LA lays out the dilemma: “Sure, some of the more compelling and innovative architecture firms may not have the budget, nor the clients, to support the financial needs of their interns, but if emerging talent isn’t valued at the onset then the profession will continue to weaken its value.”

Architect Alvin Huang of LA firm Synthesis explained how not paying young architects feeds an ongoing cycle: “We’ll draw it and revise a thousand times because it is part of our process. And part of our process is enabled by exploitation. It becomes a cyclical burden that is packaged as a rite of passage, and that institutionalizes exploitation in the culture of design.” He added, “I think there is a clear metaphor that relates to figuratively living beyond your means.”

Of course, times are indeed tough and work is often nonexistent. And without interns (who we have to admit are hungry for any type of work) already-decimated staffs will be pushed that much harder. So what are the other options? How can you remain competitive when other companies are getting free work and money is so hard to come by? And what if the other option is to close down?

Kevin Fitzgerald, director of the AIA’s Center for Emerging Professionals, feels for such firms, but said, “I worry for them if they can’t pay something. Surely if interns are of value there and you are making money off of them you should pay them,” he said.

Fitzgerald notes that some internship duties can be ethically performed for free if they are for college credit (and if handled correctly these can be as valuable, or more valuable, than some college courses). But he encourages firms to help students get credit through other means, like mentorships that also help fulfill academic credit, short of providing free labor.

Both the AIA and NCARB (which oversees the profession’s Internship Development Program) oppose unpaid internships, said Fitzgerald. The AIA, for example, won’t allow people to become fellows if they have unpaid interns in their offices.

Disclosure: we at the newspaper have been up against similar circumstances, and we do offer unpaid internships, although we do provide a travel stipend. The painful part is that without the unpaid help of interns, we can’t get out there. So we do get it and we do sympathize.

But we have to wonder about the state of a profession—as architects and as architectural journalists—where unpaid work is so prevalent. Can you imagine banks using unpaid labor? Even professions in similar fields like building and engineering rarely use unpaid work.

It’s just the tip of the iceberg in a profession that seems intent on continuously lowering the bar, from allowing others to call themselves architects to loosening requirements on the need for registered architects (this, of course is another story, and begs the question as to whether or not the AIA offers enough value to those who do become registered.)

Many claim that unpaid internships are just an unfortunate economic reality. But is exploitation worth it? Can’t we just pay someone a little? As AIA’s Fitzgerald put it, “I can’t tell people what they should pay, but the idea is if you are making money off of them, some compensation is reasonable.”