unpaid architecture internships

Architecture’s Ugliest Habit: Unpaid Internships

Unpaid internships are holding back the profession from a healthier, more successful future.

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

“Unpaid internships in architecture are illegal and clearly serve to protect the exclusivity and elite status of the avant-garde, simultaneously undermining the values which architecture seeks to represent and uphold.”

There is a storm brewing around the issue of unpaid internships, and Young Architect founder Michael Riscica is leading the way. His words, quoted above, speak to a core issue holding back the profession from a healthier, more successful future. Many firms continue to offer positions without compensation, perpetuating a vicious cycle of elitism across the profession.

Those defending unpaid internships offer up the value of work experience in place of wages, but it’s been proven that paid internships are more likely to lead to a job offer than their unpaid counterparts. This flimsy argument also ignores a crucial point: Only those that can afford to go without pay for three months or more are able to take up unpaid positions.

By closing the door on those less well-off, these firms are preventing millions of talented designers from gaining the experience they need to begin their professional, fairly-paid careers.

Questions have long been raised about the logic behind firms recruiting unpaid employees to work on fee-earning projects. If the commissions are coming in at such a rate that more resources are needed by a firm, surely they have the budget to pay the staff that delivers on these commissions? Riscica and others have argued that, if a firm does not have the income to fund paid internships, they should look into fixing their business strategy and cash-flow problems before hiring more staff.

Regardless of context, unpaid internships are a blight on the industry that just won’t go away. There is now a broad consensus that everyone should be paid for their work at a fair rate for their experience level. However, some firm principals still won’t accept this new status quo. They continue to argue that gaining professional experience is a privilege that students should be grateful for, demanding that they sacrifice themselves for the cause. Despite the mounting arguments against this logic, some architects are still not willing to pay even the minimum wage for their interns.

unpaid internships

Infographic via the Daily Californian

Now, people throughout the industry are sitting up and taking notice. An Instagram account called Archishame has been gaining traction, posting screenshots of emails from firms offering unpaid positions to students and recent graduates. The account is gaining followers every day, and many comments left show a strong desire for change.

“Is this what we want our profession to be like? This is not us. This is not the picture we want to portray,” commented Inés Hemmings of What Architecture School Does Not Teach You. “Each and every student coming out of university has the basic human right to be paid and treated fairly by their employer. I really hope that more and more graduates wake up, collectively rise up against this mistreatment, and change the loop.”

One reason behind this ongoing injustice is a misplaced perception of emerging generations in the eyes of older professionals. Younger architects often get tarred with the same brush by firms — they see new graduates as inexperienced, with raw skills that requiring continued honing. They highlight a lack of project management expertise and construction knowledge. This is all true, of course, to a certain extent — but it is no excuse for offering unpaid internships. The next generation of architects has much more to offer than these firms realize.

unpaid internships in architecture

A sample email from an unnamed Japanese firm; via Archishame

New graduates have a level of technological knowledge that surpasses that of almost every architect that came before them. These skills, which often include advanced 3D modeling, BIM expertise and even coding skills, give them an outsized value despite their relative inexperience in professional practice.

Besides this, the inherent qualities of architecture students remain clear. As previous generations should know only too well, the persistence and hard work required to get through architecture school is extraordinary. It’s even more challenging to tackle the Architect Registration Exams or their international equivalent. It’s not getting easier to become an architect — on the contrary, the rigor with which aspiring professionals are tested has reached new levels. This is a good thing for the profession; it means a higher-quality generation of architects will emerge. Their value should be better recognized.

The good news for emerging architects is this: Thanks to the internet, there has never been a greater awareness of employees’ rights, and a natural appetite for activism in the architectural profession. Social media now allows young architects to make their voices heard, expressing their opinions on the future of the profession and highlighting unfair treatment from employers.

Platforms like “Archishame” may appear negative on the surface, but if they provoke change, their long-term impact will be undoubtedly positive. The “shaming” posts have sparked numerous debates on the subject of pay, with things getting pretty heated at times. That said, if an argument is what it takes to rid the industry of unpaid internships for good, then I say: Bring it on.

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