Unpaid internships are harming the design industry – and they’re illegal

Mark Busse – One Comment

The following article by Mark Busse was published in April 2013 on,, &

Confession time: I used to be a staunch defender of unpaid internships and advised fellow firm owners and young design grads alike to engage in this time-honoured tradition. I was wrong. So wrong. And I feel quite lousy about it.

There is nothing new about this practice or the debate surrounding it. And it’s not unique to the creative workforce—it’s endemic in a bad economy. Some very notable and respected leaders in the design field have endorsed its use for years and continue to do so. But they’re wrong and the practice is harming our industry. Let me explain why.

Internships can be an amazing way to break into an industry, and young designers all think they’ll do such a good job that they’ll be offered a paid position afterward. Most I’ve spoken to think they don’t have any choice, so they do it. But the industry has profoundly risen up against speculative work in the last few years, establishing that earning work by pitching free creative devalues our industry. Many even argue that dangling the carrot of exposure or a potential future job is actually immoral, which is exaggerating the situation in my opinion. There are other more practical arguments that are worth discussing though.

The argument I always used to defend unpaid internships was that it was a vital bridge between education and work, and that it also was a costly, time-intensive commitment for any design firm. As an educator, I felt it was part of a young designer’s education akin to an apprenticeship.

Well hold on there. Even apprentices of old were provided with room and board. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, if you had talent and potential, you were given an opportunity to learn while earning your keep. These days, typically the only people able to accept unpaid internships are the privileged young supported by their family. How is a young designer buried in student loans, working part time just to survive supposed to show up five days a week for months without pay? That is unreasonable and leaves qualified, hard-working candidates behind, ultimately contributing to class divide.

Furthermore, a culture of unpaid internships results in a vetting of candidates who are unwilling to work for free, potentially resulting in candidates not actually being the most qualified. That sort of defeats the purpose, no?

The presence of unpaid interns often results in a negative impact on company culture. Imagine how an intern feels when the paid staff get attractive perks such as a day off for putting in extra hours, lunch on the boss, or a paid conference? Or when the full-time junior gets a brand-new workstation and they’re expected to lug their personal laptop from home (loaded with bootlegged software no doubt)? Or vice versa, imagine how paid staff feel when work they want to do is assigned to the unpaid newbie, or they want to head home after a long day but the intern is pulling an all-nighter to get the job done…for free? Interns can be distracting enough; unpaid interns can be a real strain on team culture and lead to long-term damage.

Most unfair is that young designers likely aren’t strong enough to take a stand. Nor should they be. The “If you don’t like it, don’t accept the internship” argument puts the onus on them, and that is cruel.

Lastly, most of the above is a moot argument. It turns out that unpaid internships are illegal anyway.

Vancouver-based social media company Hootsuite was publicly lambasted for its three-month unpaid internships. Critics quickly pointed out that according to the Employment Standards Act, unpaid internships are illegal. Not a “grey area.” Not “up to a person if they want to volunteer.” In most of North America if a company is a for-profit enterprise, the practice is totally, unequivocally illegal, although according to organizations like the Canadian Intern Association, there is no clear law governing this across the country and industry associations have avoided making a stand on this issue. It’s time there should be clarity on this important issue, in my opinion.

That these interns are there to learn doesn’t matter. The law says that only a company working directly with an educational institute in offering hands-on learning, as a required component of a formal education, can be considered a practicum and thus not “work” requiring compensation. But unless the opportunity never involves working directly on any client projects and the intern makes no contribution to the company whatsoever, then it is indeed work.

I’m not arguing that *real* school internships require payment. That’s different. And that’s legal. The lines between the two can blur but this is clear: it’s B.S. when agencies take advantage of young people, claiming their internships are some kind of learning experience when really they are exploitative.

This is why companies have junior positions, and I reject any claims that firms can’t afford to train juniors. If you can’t fork over ten bucks an hour for a young designer to contribute to your success, then it’s completely inappropriate for you to lure them with hope and false promises of exposure and experience. Give your head a shake!

If you can’t fork over ten bucks an hour for a young designer to contribute to your success, then it’s completely inappropriate for you to lure them with hope and false promises of exposure and experience.

The good news is Hootsuite’s leadership quickly owned the situation, apologized, changed its policies, and even offered back-pay to current interns. Good for them for doing not only the right thing, but the smart thing.

The fact that there is a long line of willing design students and grads doesn’t make it right. And the fact that the economy is terrible doesn’t make it acceptable. It’s plain laziness if a company doesn’t take advantage of the many government wage-subsidy funding options available. Employers, especially visible leaders in our community, are obligated to demonstrate best practices and need to think hard about the real value of unpaid internships: Are they really in the best interest of the company and our industry?

Employers, I implore you to rethink your policies and do the right thing by joining me in protecting the next generation and most vulnerable among us. And for goodness’ sake, pay them at least minimum wage.

If you are a young designer feeling like you have no alternative in this hyper-competitive industry but to offer yourself as an intern without adequate recompense, think again. Don’t be afraid to ask employers to outline what you’ll be doing, learning, and gaining if not pay. Take the time to identify and pre-register for wage-subsidy funding and offer that to potential employers to make the choice easy for them.

Beyond that, be ready to demonstrate how you are precisely the right person for the job and how you can bring value to the organization while learning and paying your dues. If they insist it’s no pay or no opportunity, know that you can take a stand and politely decline.

Question for young designers: How many of you would still gladly take an unpaid internship if you felt it “got your foot in the door”, giving you an advantage, and providing you much needed work experience and exposure?