Pay Your Damn Interns
An opportunity for people to see their value, and businesses to pay them.
I’ve ruminated on this idea for the better part of a few years. Debating on whether or not I should even share this because it is a quite controversial subject. Then I see people everyday not valuing what they have to bring to the table, and people taking advantage of their inexperience. So this is for the person who needs to see their value, and this is for the person who takes advantage of that person.
Let's start this off by expressing some gratitude. Thank you to the people who fought on my behalf. Who approached the powers that be, and called out the fact they believe I deserved to be paid. To the people who said they were going to pay me, never did, but they continued to call me to do work for them, thank you. The people who couldn’t afford to pay me, but paid me in Thank You cards, and a treat to Starbucks. I express my sincerest gratitude for the people who saw value in my work, and paid me. Thank you to the people who helped me get to where I am, right here, right now, right this moment.
I remember the cold autumn PNW air filling my lungs, and cooling my cheeks as warm tears of gratitude rolled down my face. As I was walking to my car, I was also talking to my cousin. The words escaped my lips along the lines of, “I can’t believe I’m here. I can buy groceries, andI don’t have to live on the dollar menu. We have a car, and literally all my basic Maslow Hierarchy of needs are met… AND I FEEL SO STUPID BECAUSE I’M CRYING!"
Whether you avoid paying, refuse to pay, or lie about promising to pay your interns you are refusing to enhance their quality of life and the quality of work that they put out. When an intern is relying on you for work experience, and you can’t pay them it can be the entire difference of whether or not they get to eat a meal that day, or put gas in their car to get to you to work some more. Interns cannot pay their bills on free experience. They cannot feed themselves on free experience. For the employer who asks them in the future how much their last gig paid, it also affects what they finally will get paid.
Perpetuating a Toxic Cycle
I’ve heard it so many times before. From Pastors who used to scrub the church toilets for free to the Freelancers who first internships were free. Seeing it as a right of passage to perpetuate toxic boundaries and poor expectations of what first work experience should be like. Allow me to ask you this, how much better would of it been for your self esteem, your mental health, your physical health had you of been at the very least been paid minimum wage? Think back to those moments of how a little money would of improved your quality of life.
What are we teaching the next generation of talent if you prefer to exploit them for free? Will they learn to value themselves? How much quicker would they of learned to value themselves and their work had you of made sure “Who’s Got Next”. Do interns deserve the top of the pay scale? No, that’s silly. The experience and expertise isn’t there yet. They at least deserve to be able to buy a freaking lunch on break. YOU deserved to be able to pay for a lunch on your break. Why wouldn’t you want someone else to have it better than you did?
Any student that I have ever taught or mentored, I have taught them to NEVER work for free. If their needs are taken care of, and their bills are paid, then they can volunteer a SMALL piece of their time. Don't work for “exposure or experience” for free, run in the opposite direction. Find the people who are going to pour into you for the value you that you bring to the table. I promise you, we are out there.
If you can’t afford to even feed your intern in exchange for work, or at least meet some of their very basic needs, then you/ or your business is not in a position to have help, YET.
Your Energy is Finite
That’s right. The exact opposite of unending. It has it’s limits. What I have noticed from the bosses of people who work for free vs the bosses that pay their interns are a set of boundaries. With free interns, I often see those interns being leeched upon, emptied, and ran into the ground. They ultimately end up facing burnout being available every second of every hour of the day. Many of us as individuals and ESPECIALLY creatives know it takes a lot to come back from burnout. It isn't just a matter of a little extra food or sleep. Burnout could last many months. That's many months that they might be out of commission ergo many months of still not getting paid!
The paid interns? There are a set of healthy boundaries. You work from this time to this time. You don’t answer or write emails after this time. You need to stop to eat even if it’s only for 5 minutes because you have a meeting. More often than not the paid intern is valued and respected to a degree that the free intern is not. The paid intern is seen as a valuable asset to the team, and treated like a human being.
Boundaries are Sexy
Until I saw my value as person as a designer as a photographer as a creative professional, I had no boundaries. Boundaries are healthy people. They hold expectations and have consequences when they are broken. They ultimately lead to healthier relationships. Until I learned boundaries, I continued to pair myself with toxic working relationships who only one side truly benefitted.
I know and understand that there are different schools of thought when it comes to interns or even free work, but this is mine. This is what I pride myself on as a person and as a business. Those who have offered me free work in the past, I have taken the opportunity to pour into them and place value on their work. I don't ask free work of any of the people in my life. There have been times I haven't been able to pay them what I thought they were worth (hello broke college student), but I REFUSED to let them get my without being paid. Offering creative services in return for equal value is something I have also done. (That's a whole other blog post for another day.) Either way, no one will ever work for me for free.