Monday, December 2, 2013

Twenty Points on Unpaid Internships in Museums, a Series

Museums love unpaid interns, they're addicted to them like Audrey II was to blood in Little Shop of Horrors. One just isn't enough, once you've tasted free unpaid intern labor you just can't stop yourself. It's almost like they want you to eat them with their cute little "I have to fulfill my internship credit" pleas. 

Well it's time to kill Audrey II, Seymour.

Unpaid internships are a hot topic right now and recent court rulings like this one, detailed in the New York Times, are shining a bright light on deep dark seedy world of unpaid professional labor.  

It's time that museums turn a critical eye on their unpaid internship policies and slay their own Audrey II's....before its too late!

So without further ado:

Top 5 reasons why museums must eliminate unpaid internships:

1. They are exploitative. 

Does your institution require experience in order to be an intern? Do unpaid interns do the work of a previous entry level employee or a current or future employee? If you had the money would you pay them? Do you justify not paying interns because they get networking opportunities? Yes to any of these? Well then those unpaid interns are performing a job not an internship. Internships are for people with no experience not professionals who have already committed time/money towards entering a profession. Training for pre-professionals is typically called an apprenticeship, and that is a paid position.  

2. Unpaid internships create a false sense of opportunities in the job market. 

We accommodate unpaid interns yet we have no jobs for them once they enter the workforce. This begs the question: Should we, knowing there are not enough positions in the field to absorb all these unpaid interns, be allowing all these internship opportunities to continue? Many in the field justify unpaid internships because, besides providing professional experience, they provide networking opportunities for emerging professionals. My response to this is, should someone have to work for free for extended periods of time for networking opportunities? That's not fair compensation. Couldn't we, if we're so keen on networking opportunities, just provide emerging professionals with actual networking opportunities? Like more conference grant opportunities, local and frequently recurring meetings, etc.? Unpaid internships create a false sense of experience or advantage, "I did an internship, and now I have skills! I have an advantage over less skilled applicants!" Or "It was so easy to get that unpaid internship at that museum, getting my dream job at my favorite museum will be a cinch!" Right? Wrong. Most jobs are gotten from referrals or networks, not outright experience. So why should someone work for free just to grow their network?

3. Unpaid internships do not encourage socioeconomic diversity.

Who can afford to work, without pay, for long periods of time? People with financial means, that's who. Building unpaid internships into our degree programs, professional development, and institutions does not encourage the kind of diversity we claim to want and desperately need. It's embarrassingly obvious how much this smacks of hypocrisy.

4. Unpaid internships put a band-aid on a broken system. 

What happened to apprenticeships? What happened to entry-level jobs? Why am I seeing internship opportunities that require 5+ years of experience? Why do organizations/established professionals no longer feel they have an obligation to train or develop emerging professionals? Furthermore are unpaid internships the answer to cost cutting or do they enable further cost cutting, or both? Are unpaid internships a race to the bottom? Probably.

5. Unpaid internships are falsely cost and time effective.

How much time do you spend hiring, training, supervising, evaluating, and saying goodbye to unpaid interns? Would not 1 regular employee be much more efficient then 4 interns every year? So why do we think unpaid interns help us do so much work? If you're temped to say, "Well I can't afford to have that 1 employee, so aren't 4 unpaid interns the next best thing?" No because the purpose of a staff position and an internship are not the same and confusing an intern with a replacement staff member robs that intern of their internship experience and it degrades the role of staff. Also, see point 1 again!

Check in next week for the next installment titled, Unpaid internships: how to stop the addiction.

© 2013 Patricia Lord

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