Unpaid Internships in Architecture

Introduction

Internships are really valuable especially early on in your career and when you are studying then a summer internship is going to be a big help. As the process of becoming an Architect takes so long, maybe 5 to 7 years at school plus a couple of years of internship plus some exams sprinkled throughout that time its important to pick up some real world experience as you go. But many firms offer Internships without any pay which is controversial. I have tried to lay out the arguments below from both sides with some practical advise for those looking for Internships.

Don’t Work for Free

The short answer to whether you should take an unpaid internship if you are offered one is don’t! No really just don’t do it no one should be working for free not even for good experience. I have tried to provide a summary of all the arguments, where the profession stands in different countries and some resources to hep you when you are applying for these posts.

Background

Unpaid internships in the Architectural profession, depending on the country you live in, are still quite common. In the UK a 2012 Student earnings survey found that 11% of students were unpaid. In the U.S.A. the (NACE) survey of 2017 showed 43% of all interns (not just Architects) were unpaid so it happens everywhere but the level differs greatly, and it’s still quite common even in countries where it is nominally illegal.

Thankfully these types of positions are getting more and more uncommon but they are still around and the more prestigious the firm often the more tempting it is for you to accept an unpaid position with them as a way of getting better experience and padding your CV.

Arguments for Unpaid Internship

Why am I so much against unpaid internships? They are still common and still defended in the press. Maybe we should go over the arguments on both sides so that you can see the overall balance of the argument. It’s also true that in some countries it has been the traditional way into the industry. For example the “open desks” tradition is quite common in Japan where small practices take students who don’t get paid and sometime even have to provide their own equipment. The argument in pretty much all countries goes something like this;

  1. Interns can learn more working at a studio than studying at a fee-paying university.
  2. In small Architectural studios the office wouldn’t be able to afford to hire the intern with a wage. 
  3. It was traditional apprenticeship model to work your way up like this.

Arguments Against Unpaid Internship

Answers to the above points really render the defense null and void;

  1. Interns definitely learn alot from a studio and have to. But school and office tend to teach different aspects of the profession. Interns also bring valuable thing to the table such as enthusiasm, sometimes better technical skills (rendering etc) and flexibility. No one is giving jobs to interns that they can’t handle but lets be realistic interns get jobs that otherwise better paid members of staff would have to do. That means they are doing work that’s needed and therefore should be remunerated. What you learn in an office and in the University tend to be different sides of the profession. Both are needed.
  2. So the unpaid intern takes the finantial hit for the architects who can’t run their business properly.  When you work for free the office will bill their clients less. This lets them undercut their competitors’ fees and win more work. Simple capitalism and it’s part of the reason fees in Architecture generally are too low.
  3. Yes the old apprenticeship model was about for centuries, that was in the time of mentoring and with a more secure job and prospect of rising up within the same firm. But that has long gone, now the way we train Architects is now through University degrees with some work experience.

Cut to The Chase

Many firms make hiring an intern a substitute for a regular employee and not paying them for work that would otherwise need a waged employee to do. This is a way to keep more talented and less wealthy students out of the profession. It’s not a conscious decision but it’s a by product as the students best able to get the internships and a leg up in the profession are the ones whose parents can afford to support them longer. We as a profession should be looking for talent and hard workers and rewarding that. So yes you should be paid and it should be a fair bit above minimum wage.

Offices can be part of the solution too

I worked as an intern in offices that paid something to me and from which I got good experience. It’s also worth remembering that there are some good offices out there that are conscientiously run and want to give their Interns good experience and give something back to the profession. It’s also a way to spot the next generation of talent to hire when the time is right.

Alternatives

There are some alternatives to Interning in an Architects office.Work onsite as a labourer, you will learn so much about the building process which will pay you back over the long term. Peter Zumthor says he loves to have employees who have actually worked with their hands and have some experience onsite.

Many other Architects will appreciate the insight that brings. If your experience is drawn from a wider a deeper understanding of the profession it will be to your advantage. You may take an unpaid Internship if it is through your course, monitored and renumerated as class credits for example.

Long Hard Road

my interest in architecture goes way back. There was a time when I thought I could be an architect, where I expected to be more creative than I turned out, so I had to go into politics instead.

– Barak Obama

It’s a long hard road to become an Architect, harder than even Mr. Obama knew, so we need to support the next generation on their way up better. Payed internships in offices that care are part of the solution.

Detail of Kamppi Chapel.
Detail of Kamppi Chapel, Helsinki

Legal

USA

UK

  • unpaid internships are illegal with a few eceptions (Reference)

Finland

  • Unpaid internships are legal but only as part of an official training or educational course. (Reference)

Resources

Legal Disclaimer

This post is for general information only and may not reflect the actual law. No one should construe the information in this video as legal advice. No one should take action or refrain from action based on the information within.

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