Friday, February 8, 2013

on internships & industry...

Lara posted this yesterday on her personal blog and since it's so relevant to I&S we're cross posting over here. Interested in your thoughts!

One of our past interns Lauren, printing a two colour repeat design

I'm taking a little break from my usual programming to talk about something a little controversial at the moment - internships. Sparking into a bit of a hot topic in the media and twittersphere in the last few days, Fair Work Australia are cracking down on internships that might be deemed illegal if they're not conducted as part of an 'authorised educational training course'.

Of course the topic is pretty close to my heart because at Ink & Spindle we engage interns on a fairly regular basis. Some of our interns are requesting a position as a compulsory part of their degree, others are coming to us entirely of their own volition. They might be a full-time parent looking to return to work, or a student who has studied something entirely different and now are curious about changing career paths... to us it doesn't matter what their background is so long as they're keen.

A very blurry Robyn, printing a single colour repeat design of dutch houses!

I think that yes there are instances in certain industries where internships are exploitative - big companies offering long term positions when they could afford to pay someone but choose to substitute a paid position with a free intern. These situations are unethical and set a bad precedent in their industry. But there are other situations such as ours where we simply can't afford to pay an extra person. We aren't dependent on interns - our business functions fine without them - but if there are individuals keen for the experience we'll gladly take them on board. We might not have a lot of spare cash but we do have a wealth of knowledge to impart. There are a lot of menial tasks to be done around the studio but we try hard to ensure that the positions are mutually beneficial.

I can't help but feel that the issue of unpaid internships is largely a 'first world problem' and seems to occur largely in 'desirable' industries, e.g. textiles, music, fashion, design. There seems to be an abundance of willing workers and not enough jobs for all of them. To me that's not just an issue of exploitation but equally an issue with our education system. Here we are providing an gamut of exciting higher educational opportunities, giving people the illusion that they can work in whatever field they desire, but without any accountability from our educators with regards to finding work in the chosen field after study.

Intern work - stencils on the lightbox

Textiles is a classic example. Perhaps it's my ignorance but sadly I just don't see where all the jobs are for the students who are studying textile design. Yet our universities keep producing new graduates; students who are passionate about design and are lead to believe there'll be work at the other end. And when there's not, it's no surprise they're willing to do unpaid work to give themselves an edge.

In my opinion the best way to find work in our field is to make your own job. That's what we did. So when our interns come through we focus less on 'textile design' and more on 'small business' - how our business runs, how we make it work, the ups and downs and challenges. These are valuable insights for anyone, not just a student of textile design. Interestingly most of the successful creative individuals I've met are those who first studied something else entirely different. I think that's awesome.

xx Lara.


tiel said...

Lara, it really is crazy and so difficult for employers to want to train fairly when their hands are tied to policies My husband has his own business and he would love to train someone who would be willing to learn on the job. But the way the system works it favours the education sector more than the industry.

kass hall said...

Lara I couldn't agree MORE. There are more students than jobs. But that's also because as a community we have this warped belief that we are all entitled to a higher education and that there should be jobs at the end of that education. I'd never deny anyone an education but it is ridiculous to be pumping out graduates in all industries where the industry can't support them. Meanwhile, lower paid and lower skilled jobs are screaming for staff but our kids won't do them because they think they're entitled to something more. I wish we could all have law degrees, art degrees, medical degrees and walk into jobs. But it's not sustainable. It drives wages up which then means less economy to employ more people. It's a sad reality - not pretty and not PC. But reality nonetheless.

Should interns be paid? Like you, I think in the big companies, yes. When I was a teaching student, I did 11 weeks full time, unpaid teaching work. As an art student, I did my internship in Canada because an opportunity of a lifetime arose. I paid my own way. Has that ensured me work as an artist? A gallery assistant? Even a teacher (with straight HDs at uni I might add?) NO. Why? Because there's not a lot of work in the arts industry (don't get me started on teaching....). I have international experience, I have a second internationally published book coming out this year and guess what? I cant get a job in visual arts. And I am not a terrible person! There just isn't work.

Experience is everything in getting ahead but not when it becomes exploitative. I don't think the internships you have are that at all. It's the big players they're targeting and rightfully so. But unis - and high schools for that matter - need to take a good hard look at the concept of telling their students they can do anything and be anything. Don't discourage them but be realistic when talking to students about the opportunities that exist and what other options exist. A good uni will do that and will also talk to students about ways they can apply their qualifications in non traditional ways.


lamina@do a bit said...

Spot on....such an interesting topic! Internships are just so important, I would totally do an internship if I could (drat I live in Sydney)... what a wonderful way to gain priceless knowledge and experience! Those big companies should be ashamed of themselves... spoiling it for everyone!

Great post! :)

Natalie Yates said...

Nicely said. I'm currently doing work experience at a great textile company. It is a great way to 'learn the ropes' with hands on experience. My purpose is not for a educational requirement, or because I can't find work it's more about getting back my confidence in a work environment due to being out of the system for a period of time. It's great that companies allow us to do this. In my case I am getting paid but through an insurance company who are helping me get back into the work force. If it was decided to only allow students to do internships for course requirements a lot of us would miss out on a worthy experience 'being at our decision to go in unpaid'. I'm so grateful for the experience. It is sad to hear though, that there are industries out there exploiting the system. Keep up the great work Ink & Spindle.

Anonymous said...

This is so true, and sadly so. I studied textiles in Canada and when school finished, that was it. My program provided me with zero connection to industry or to work in a related field. Right now I'm going back to school for something that will lead to a job that pays well enough to support time spent in my home printing studio, because all I want to do is surface design, but I don't have the financial start up to get my own business off the ground. I do occasionally dream of coming to Australia to intern at Ink and Spindle.

Tara Griffiths said...

This is a great discussion and one I think should be at the forefront of every art/design/fashion education.

I work in an art college as support staff, so I get the chance to observe a lot of what's going on and think about the big picture (as well as having gone through the art college experience and being a "maker" myself).

I agree with Lara and Kass saying that it's irresponsible for Universities to be educating all of these students with promises of jobs that just aren't there. But I think the problem isn't the number of students, I think it's the focus of the education system.

At our school I see a lot of young students who are encouraged to be developing their concepts, technique and ideas but not their survival.

In my view, most art students already have ideas. Concepts can be developed as the individual develops. Technique and ways to think about making money with your ..... (fill in your artistic career of choice) are the two things that need to be addressed at the post-secondary level and the later is definitely not.

If an intern helps you with these two things (technique and survival), in my mind... a university degree is just a piece of paper to show off with. The real stuff in life is experience (internships).

Kudos, to you Ink and Spindle and the rest of you "makers"/"designers" out there who are brave enough to think outside the box to use your creative work as a survival tool and brighten the world as you do it. You are truly trail blazers for the rest of us.

Sandra B said...

I finished high school in the early eighties, at the very end of free higher education. I suspect part of the problem is the user-pays education policies. The courses that get funded are the ones that the students want to do. Essentially, our future skill base is being determined by the hopes and dreams of 17 year olds.
I teach sewing and design skills to teens and I strongly advise those that want a career in fashion to take business courses at school rather than just art and design courses, and to make sure their sewing and pattern making skills are solid. Big companies are closing down constantly, and there are no positions for juniors, meaning no mentors for new graduates, and probably no options other than self-employment. As far as I can see, this becomes a downward spiral as everyone has to reinvent the wheel, rather than build on existing knowledge. Internships are enormously valuable in that respect.