Thursday, December 5, 2013

Five more points on unpaid internships at museums.

When we left off last week we were discussing why unpaid internships are the meth of the museum world. 

Its all well and fine to sit on my high horse and publish insane ramblings about things and then disappear into the depths of the interwebs, however, because I am solutions-oriented I have a quick guide to breaking your addiction. I feel very strongly about this topic and I want museums to develop meaningful solutions to their problems so before we actually discuss positive ways to redirect our unpaid internship lust, I'd like to go over some common addiction breaking pitfalls.

How NOT to stop the addiction to unpaid internships, 5 common mistakes.

6. Replacement or conversion into volunteer programs or short-term contract work.

This seems like such an obvious, easy, and painless way to solve our problems. Excellent, issue resolved! It was crazy museums were even addicted in the first place when the solution was so simple. Well not exactly. As any former addict will tell you the temptation to replace one addiction with another is the lazy man's way to avoid pain. "Cigarettes are terrible for your lungs, I'll just chew tobacco instead! Addiction defeated!" Obviously this replacement strategy resolved nothing and the addiction remains, disguised as something else with an entirely different set of concerns. So when we look to break our addiction to unpaid interns, let's not just funnel them into our volunteer program. A rose by any other name is still a rose except now our interns have lost out on the value of a structured internship. A good internship is focused professional development and specific skill building work under the direction of mentors. Volunteers are not provided with the same kind of resources that an intern should be. Contract work, the prostitution circuit of the professional world, is no better and comes with its own set of issues like team cohesion and organizational loyalty.   

7. Absolute refusal of all internship opportunities, paid or unpaid.

Cold turkey! The only way to go if you truly want to beat your addiction. This method might break the cycle but where does it leave pre-professionals? Internships can be extremely valuable and cutting off the only means most pre-pofessionals have to develop skills and find potential mentors without providing them with an alternate method to grow is too harsh. Let's work on creating more apprenticeships while we simultaneously scale back our unpaid internship programs. If we just shutter our windows and doors there will be a bunch of strung-out pre-professionals wondering around with nothing to do. So in the short-term more care needs to be taken in evaluating who is a good candidate for an internship. Are people applying for an internship in an area where they already have good experience? Then they probably don't need an internship, they're probably professionals that can't get a job. Use your internship resources wisely because a good internship is, and should be, a drain on your resources. 

8. Deflection – funneling to other internship programs only to pursue them later as employees or volunteers.

"Um, you can't get any unpaid internships from me anymore. I quit that, but I heard so and so down the street still has some. Let me know how that goes, I might be looking for someone with some experience later." Gross! You're just going to let everyone else expend their resources training people and then swoop in later and reap what you didn't help sow? Mooch! We're all part of a profession, a system. If you want quality professionals to work at your institution, you have to help develop professionals in your field. It really is everyone's responsibility. Mooching isn't a long-term solution, one day you'll find yourself cut off just when you can least afford it.

9. Deny you have a problem.

I really hope I don't run into any museum professionals that don't think unpaid internships are a problem at all so I'm going to focus on a few specific reasons why some people might not think they're THAT big of a problem.

A lot of internships are required as part of graduate and undergraduate museum studies programs. Many professionals may be tempted then to say "Hey, their school requires it, I'm doing them a favor!" Yes, free access to work for them to do is a favor, a great favor, but let's consider that on top of working for you for free they also have to pay to earn the internship credit. This is just doubly insulting! Now I'm sure school administrators and you are thinking "Those fees go towards the administrative costs associated with processing and maintaining student records." Great point, but let's think about that for a second. A normal credit costs, let's say $600. Those funds support administrative costs as well as pay for a professor to teach the class. Now, an internship credit costs the same amount, but there isn't an internship why am I paying the same amount? Before you say anything most internships are more than one credit so think students must PAY more than a grand for ONE internship. So why are interns paying so much for an internship credit? The internship adviser of course! Hold on - the amount of work an internship adviser does is far less then that of a professor. This is because, as you know, the internship supervisor takes on a lot of the responsibility for the successful completion of the internship. So, shouldn't the internship supervisor get a cut of some of those credit fees? After all you're doing work, draining your resources, you deserve fair compensation for your contribution! Right? Now imagine the university starts charging you just to have the privilege of hosting interns. What? That's insanity, totally unfair! Yes, and now you know how unpaid interns feel.

"Hold the phone - I thought you said good internships drain your resources. Why do interns need me, on top of draining my non monetary resources, to also pay them ? Then I am expending more resources then I am receiving in return."

This is an excellent question and I'm so glad you asked. It's true when you compare the resources consumed/resources contributed ratio for the kind of quality internships I am advocating for, it is very likely that there will be an imbalance for your institution. The amount of contribution that you get from an intern in terms of work may not match or exceed the resources you expended on an intern in the form of training time, professional development time, etc. If you look at the amount of work that an intern has to do in order complete the internship credit for their school, their resource consumption increases. Interns typically have additional work required of them by their programs as part of their internship, such as papers, phone check ins, portfolios, blog posts, presentations, etc. Plus there's the money they have to shell out for transportation, parking, food, etc. to get to the internship site. When you actually calculate all the resources that an intern has to spend in order to be an intern, it comes out to far more than in justifiable for the opportunity to learn from other professionals. I'm not saying you have to pay them the same as a staff member but some monetary compensation is appropriate, if only to help offset their commitment. I know this is difficult for some institutions, which is why I think participating institutions should receive a portion of credit fees that those greedy universities keep for themselves when you mentor their students for them. And don't feel shy about telling universities who send their internship seekers to your institution this.

Ok, these are all great points but maybe I need to spend a little time explaining why I think unpaid internships are so bad. To start, I'm not talking about one unpaid internship here or there, I'm talking about the whole system. It sounds a little confusing to think of increased experience and greater education as a race to the bottom so I would like to propose that we're engaged in a race to the top. Let me explain. We all agree that learning more is good but when we constantly have to one up each other, be the better candidate, we run the risk of defeating ourselves. "I can do an unpaid internship, I have the funds to work for free for a little while!" "Oh yea? Well I can do TWO unpaid internships, more experience for me! I'll get more network contacts and more skills." "Oh really? Well I can work for free for 7 years. I can get an unpaid internship where ever I want and then I'll walk on to ANY job I want." Ok, this is a little silly but you see my point, at what point are our skyscrapers turning into towers of Babel? Why are we spending half our lives working for free so that we can get paid work? We aren't headed anywhere that is sustainable. Instead of working with each other to improve our system we just started competing with each other. We played right into the hands of those who seek to take advantage of us. 

10. Defer and blame.

This is perhaps the trap that I am most worried about. We all have a lot of projects that need attention and we might think unpaid labor is our only option. If we put off making changes to your internship programs until after you finish that one project we're going to be putting it off for the next century.

Equally bad would be the blame approach "The administration of this museum just doesn't understand what we do. They expect me to finish all these projects but they don't give me any funds to do it. I have no choice." This may all be true and the only real piece of advice I have is maybe you should consider not doing some of those projects. Crazy thought right? Not do a project your administration hasn't planned resource allocation for or budgeted funds for? Who is this lady? If your museum can't allocate resources or funds for a project then a. they're horrible administrators, and b. you really have no obligation to complete that project. Hear me out because I know a lot of you are already turning away. We all think all of our projects are important and we have to do them or we'll be fired but first, let's remember, we work in museums and nothing is life threatening. What I am saying is when we compensate for bad planning on the part of the museum by taking advantage of interns and emerging professionals we are contributing to the problem, NOT saving the day or being a good employee or being a resourceful professional. The more they (bad administrators) see that you accomplish projects without resources or funds, the more likely they will give you more projects and less funds. What you did was engage in a race to the bottom and now you're stuck. Sometimes you have to let projects fail for people to see that poor planning defeats projects.

.....and don't worry, you wont get fired. No one has ever gotten fired from a museum. Note: see my post on why museums should start firing more people, coming soon!

Next time we'll be learning to channel our desires into positive results and finally slay our internship demons.

© 2013 Patricia Lord

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