I am a former intern. To some a badge of honour, to others a damning mark of shame. Why does this arouse such vitriol?
Having pondered this for a while I decided to open up the debate on this divisive subject once and for all. Does being a intern make you different? Does it make you more employable? Does Fashion Intern Problems hit the nail EXACTLY on the head?
This has taken me a while to write. I began to think about it when reports surfaced of the death of Moritz Erhardt. I thought about it prior to that when Condé Nast discontinued their internship program after increased criticism for its practices. Reading these articles and hearing these stories made me think that the plight of an intern is only often called into question when something goes horrifically wrong.
I asked many of my friends this; a lot of us are lucky enough (or unlucky, depending on your viewpoint) to be in creative industries and have been or have come across intern culture in their working lives.
The internal ranter in me often thinks of this when a work day is particularity trying. Our generation were told growing up, that qualifications are important. Make sure you've passed your exams, do well in your degree; you will be rewarded with the wonderful career you aspire to have. We were told later on, once we had gained the qualifications that we needed experience, we needed to 'pay our dues' (I digress, I can't not) and we will then reach Nirvana, or a steady 9-5. For some, this is yet to happen.
Stories of internships are of course varied and others have been better than average. My stories of internships are no different.
I have done everything from unpick labels from scarves and sewing them back on the other side (a shipping error that needed correcting that second, obvious fashion week dramas) to attending fashion week shows watching garments saunter down the catwalk that I had a hand in making as well as the obligatory coffee runs, schlepping garment bags and steaming all manor of garments. All of my internships, positive or less so are presented proudly on my CV in an attempt to make me more employable than the next person in an already flooded job market, an idea that is superbly illustrated in this Guardian article. I have often found that sometimes simply being in a notable fashion house can become superfluous to experience.
It is this need to stand out in a tiny job market, made even worse by niche specifications of intern dominated industries that often brings out resentment in the wider public. To a lot of people internships
"...keeps creative positions [for the] majority of affluent middle class people"
Countless tales of long-term internships with no progression is a sad and realistic fact of life for many in the creative industry. Alec Dudson, editor of Intern Magazine told me that he started his magazine "initially as a means of me staying involved in the industry I had grown to love" and to showcase the talent of those working with little to no recognition or reward; financial or otherwise.
It is often this feeling of helplessness that fuels the fire for others who have not, or refuse to undertake an internship and wholeheartedly condemn the practise. From many standpoints it is seen as an elitist way into employment. A lot of people who aspire to work in a creative industry simply cannot because it is not financially possible to work as an intern.
They are often more demanding than an a 9-5 (I once regularly worked at an internship on a 8:30-10:30 shift) which means 'extra curricular' work is not physically possible; or turns you into a fully fledged zombie; like another of my friends has made about internships
"interns plug the gaps and cause more harm then good in the long run"
If this were true, where is this harm actually placed? In an ideal scenario the interns benefit from some knowledge of an industry they want to be in; at a grass roots level. At worst you can gain experience by candidly learning through osmosis; you are surrounded by professionals working in your chosen industry. If you are eager you will listen to their conversations, you'd sit in and take notes during meetings. This is experience, which cannot be found in the classroom or lecture hall and this is the experience that in theory should give you an advantage over others.
It also prepares you for the gruelling and often thankless tasks that you are given when you eventually find yourself employed in your chosen industry. Because once you do find work, the similarities in your new found position can and will become scarily akin to the tasks picked up 'earning your dues'. Leandra Medine, of Man Repeller fame explains this
The work wasn't easy mindless, sometimes, but never easy and I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to stab someone. Instead, however, I grinned and beared (sic) it. Eventually I was recommended for my first “real” job. Once hired, the long hours didn't shock me and the low pay didn't dissuade me I knew how fashion worked because I had already experienced it and knew I could – and wanted to – handle it.
Creatives and Designers also benefit from internships, but not in the way you would normally expect. The Fashion industry, in the UK alone contributes £26bn to the economy, however this is not distributed evenly. New labels and designers often take several years to break even, let alone make a profit and often rely on grants and sponsorship deals like NewGen or Fashion East to move forward and with an estimated 95% of new labels failing in their five years (according to the BoF) it is easy to see why new and even some slightly established labels need the help from interns to help them grow to profit and fully establish themselves in the wider market; in my personal experience it is often these newer and smaller labels that provide the best learning experience. Another friend of mine told me about their positive experience:
My best experience was getting to go to Paris for fashion week. I'd worked really hard and cared about my work and it was noticed. So the designers saved up and paid for my Eurostar ticket. It was a great way to end the internship and I learnt so much from it
There are of course, companies who take advantage of the symbiotic relationship an internship originally set up to create. The are always Devil Wears Prada horror stories, but these have appeared with less frequency in the last few years with more success stories taking their place. The most recent example of negative press was the lawsuit brought against Alexander McQueen. An intern is suing for unpaid wages and exploitation for spending several weeks drawing artwork for embroidery, repairing embellished clothing, and dyeing large quantities of fabric for nothing but lunch & travel expenses. That is simply unacceptable for a company (albeit a conglomerate) who made €1.61 billion in profits in 2012.
It's these horror stories that fuel Blogs like Fashion Intern Problems & allows Buzzfeed posts gems like this. But modern internships do not always involve spending hours at Starbucks or picking up dry cleaning for your boss....right?!
So where do we go from here?
It is my belief that internships are beneficial to a persons' career development. You gain skills that are invaluable and are not offered in the traditional education system and it is this system that needs to change. More emphasis needs to be placed on thriving in the work environment. By doing so you eliminate scenarios like this becoming a recruitment norm:
"Sorting through the stack of resumes we kept on file, I soon developed a system. If they had ever been published anywhere, they went in the A pile. If they had never been published before, they went in the B pile. I always meant to get to the B pile but, well, you know... sometimes the only way to break out of that infernal cycle — to jump from the B pile to the A pile — is just to get your hands on some experience, job or no job." Andrew Coyne
Internships should evolve to accommodate those who are willing to put the work in and they should be awarded a deserved wage for this, by many this is seen as an updated and much talked about (by government) apprenticeship.
Preparing students for the world of work is invaluable; education is a wonderful thing and will obviously help you in your chosen career. This is not often thought of and this is something that needs to be addressed.
Fashion and Creative industries are a big deal. They generate more money for the UK than the Car Industry and it's growing. Education is important in these areas and like science and maths needs to be addressed by the government. They should get involved and make sure people on both sides of an internship benefit and can contribute more to our economy; to me, that makes the most sense.
This lifts the fog on what is, right now a huge grey area. Once the fog clears you can see if for what it is.
Internships were never meant to generate a culture of nepotism in creative industries, they were meant to help you develop and nurture the skills needed for a particular industry.
I learnt a great deal from mine; it has helped me gain experience and enriched my knowledge of an industry I am infinitely passionate about, this is something that should be for everyone.
Find out more about Alec & Intern Magazine here
Originally posted here