The Unpaid Internship

I found value in mine, but am I the rule or the exception?

10.29.13
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Condé Nast announced last week that they were officially discontinuing their internship program. “The end of the program comes after the publisher was sued this summer by two former interns who claimed they were paid below the minimum wage during internships at W and The New Yorker,” wrote WWD.

The conversation quickly turned into an argument on unpaid fashion internships across all boards. It seems that there are two main camps regarding the topic: those who have had one and felt used, and those who have had one and felt lucky. I’m of the latter.

I had three completely unpaid internships, plus a grueling four months at a publication where I worked long hours for a small stipend. I was completely broke, always tired, had no social life and yet — I wouldn’t trade it. Textbooks can’t teach you experience, and the education I received (yes, even while lugging garment bags across town) was greater than I thought it could be.

I viewed myself as a student and my bosses as teachers. Each person I encountered taught me something. Each anecdote taught me something. You may argue that running garment bags across town is nothing more than acting as a glorified messenger but I’d tell you that it taught me emotional endurance, physical resilience and most importantly, the subway system.

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 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.

It’s important to mention that not all fashion internships are beneficial. I am well aware that some companies treat their interns solely as vehicles to get clothes from one shoot to the other. I also know that many can’t afford to live in a city like Manhattan and work five days a week without proper compensation; I’m not arguing for mistreatment of interns and I’m not against them being paid. I’m simply speaking from personal experience, and how I feel about one important element regarding my unpaid internships. It taught me tenacity.

You cannot — and will not — thrive in this industry without tenacity. You may scrape by but you won’t reach the top. It doesn’t matter who your father is or what label shoes you’re wearing.

I had multiple friends who interned during the day and waitressed at night. They were exhausted all the time but determination carried them through. Isn’t this what aspiring actors and hopeful musicians do — spend their days laboring through various workshops and unpaid projects? Everyone’s hoping for his or her big break, and in the mean time, they work the late shift at a local bar, then crash on a friend’s couch in between sublets. My peers who worked and interned had a stronger grip on their dreams than those who didn’t. They were focused, determined, and nothing could shake them loose of the end goal. Tenacity.

Leandra forwarded me a New York Times article this weekend that had me nodding in agreement. It was an essay titled “Slaves of the Internet, Unite.”

The author, Tim Kreider, makes a plea for his fellow artists to stop creating online content for free. He describes (albeit a tad cynically) how those who used be considered artists — writers, musicians, etc. — have now become reduced to “content providers” courtesy of “employing” publications soliciting work where “exposure” is the preferred currency. I found myself championing nearly every word. Then I realized I was contradicting my own argument for the unpaid internship.

Couldn’t it be said that exchanging “experience” for what’s essentially free labor is the same thing? That it’s just as bad to ask a reputable author to write an uncompensated article as it is to expect a broke college student to work without pay?

Perhaps.

But at the same time, the difference between an experienced writer (or editor, stylist, illustrator, etc.) and an intern is just that: experience. One paid their dues and, the other — as of yet — did not.

For me, maybe that’s what this is all about. I feel like I’ve paid my dues. I didn’t come to New York City with a trust fund or connections, but I didn’t let a chip develop on my shoulder, either. Instead I scrubbed the floor with a two-cent toothbrush and the end result was a career.

It’s possible that I’m not the rule, that I’m the exception. When I look around at my fellow peers in the industry today, however, they all share a similar story to mine. We’re of an old school mentality and a dated system — but that doesn’t mean it’s right. So I’m handing the mic over to you now. Share your stories, your thoughts, and your arguments on the unpaid internship.

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