This article has been updated with corrections.
The pitch sounds almost too good to be true: An all-expenses paid six-month immersion at six creative agencies in six cities around the world. This is the premise of “The World’s Greatest Internship” (WGI), a new work-learning program that serves as a radical counterpoint to the unsatisfying, unpaid, and mostly unglamorous internships common today. Offered to two young designers, WGI is billed as “a new model for a changed industry.”
Initiated by Butchershop Creative in San Francisco, WGI’s new model is created with “the new emerging creative” in mind, someone who’s “a Frankenstein of designer, entrepreneur, strategist, inventor, artist, culture maker, and economist.” These polymathic monsters will be sent only to top agencies, you know, the ones “defining what the new ‘creative agency’ is—less account chasing, more co-inventing.”
Already, WGI’s social media accounts teem with images of a breezy, globe-trotting life that many young professionals dream of. Museum-hopping in London, gaufrettes in Belgium, office foosball in Austria… But does this highly Instagrammable internship get us any closer to solving the systemic problem of how young people learn about professional life?
WGI’s interns—graphic designer Whitney Badge and copywriter Madeleine Carrucan—have a head start on their peers. “Each agency has committed to compensation based on their local labor laws,” says Ian Ernzer, Butchershop’s brand director who oversees the program. “Butchershop will be compensating what we offer any paid intern, which is significantly higher than San Francisco minimum wage.” Each agency also pays for the interns’ travel and accommodations.
“The foundations of any sustainable internship model is pay. Without that, you’re only recruiting from a small, exclusive pool of talent.”
The fact that we consider Badge and Carrucan unique—even lucky—in the fact that they’re paid for their work should be a red flag to the industry. While there are are other grassroots efforts that call attention to the issue (like this simple site that shows every design NYC company that pays its interns a living wage—see if you can spot the big names miss here), the money question has been the crux of acrimonious labor disputes for decades. In the U.S., the justification for unpaid training programs was established in a 1947 Supreme Court case. In Walling v. Portland Terminal Co., the court ruled that a railroad company didn’t have to pay brakemen trainees who worked for seven to eight days because they weren’t employees.
Alec Dudson, intern magazine’s editor-in-chief, argues that paying the young creatives should be a top priority. “Covering travel and accommodation is a start, but who can afford to work unpaid for six months around the world?” argues Dudson, who is a lecturer at Leeds Arts University. “The foundations of any sustainable internship model is pay. Without that, you’re only recruiting from a small, exclusive pool of talent,” he says. “Things like WGI are fine, but ultimately, it’s a PR exercise.”
Before we can tackle benefits and compensation, there’s a more fundamental problem that needs to be settled. What exactly is an internship? It’s common to interchange “internship” with words like “practicum” or “fellowship,” but not all work-learning programs are equal, as a 2017 University of Wisconsin-Madison study stresses. Its findings include the following definitions:
- Internship: A short-term opportunity for students to work (paid or unpaid) for an employer where ideally their academic learning can be applied to real-world tasks.
- Co-op: A formal academic program where students work full-time for a significant duration at a firm while still being considered a student. Work is standardized, structured and project-based. Most co-ops function via a contractual agreement between a university and an employer, who “cooperate” in educating the student.
- Apprenticeship: A structured academic program where students “learn and earn” by working at a job site while taking a limited number of academic courses. Apprenticeships can take between 3-4 years, often require on the-job-training and can lead to professional certification and often full-time employment at the job site.
- Practicum: A component of some educational programs where students are placed in a job site (e.g., classroom, hospital) and observe the work of professionals while also spending some time performing tasks themselves. Typically, students are also enrolled in a course connected to the practicum
“Clearly, a shared conception of what precisely constitutes an internship experience does not exist, and this poses considerable issues for researchers, policymakers, students, educators, and employers alike,” the report states. “Developing a consistent and robust definition will be of utmost importance so that students and employers have some guarantees that they are participating in a particular type of program.”
On top of the categories the study tackles, terms like “student worker,” “student trainee,” “open desk” employee, or “mentee” make things murkier. The semantic mish-mash around internship needs to be resolved, because there are rights associated with each work category and labor laws adhere to a stricter vocabulary than agency copywriting.
It’s useful to remember that internships are meant to be a learning experience that benefits the intern, not the employer. The spirit of at-work programs is less about getting cheap labor than taking an interest in preparing a student or a new graduate for professional life.
For Walter Bernard, an internship is clearly tethered to education. The celebrated art director of New York Magazine, Time, and Fortune has taken many students under his wing. In fact, 63 of them are represented in a grid of Polaroids on a wall on his studio on 32nd Street in New York City. “Having an intern is about teaching,” Bernard explains. “You have to spend time with each one.”
Working with coordinators from the College of St. Rose in Albany or the School of Visual Arts, he sets up the experience like a working semester and gives interns a grade at the end. When choosing interns, he values their attitude over their portfolio. “You can’t put down their portfolio at that stage of their career,” Bernard says. “You get someone with good foundational skills and is pleasant to work with in the studio.”
During a time when students can learn many technical skills independently, modeling the intangible skills of professional life—client communication, office civility, conflict resolution, and fair business practices—is arguably more essential. In this scenario, mistreating workers feeds the cycles of toxic work culture, especially since those interns may host their own one day.
Ultimately, woeful internship models can’t be redeemed with office thrills or passport stamps. The world’s truly greatest internship involves generous professionals willing to make room in their busy calendars for young professionals over a period of time that allows for real learning to take place. Maybe this can happen in the month that WGI allots for each location, and maybe not. But more than that, a great internship requires the discernment to assign tasks that interns can actually learn from (this does not include coffee runs or rudimentary grunt work), apart from meeting a deliverable.
And like all great learning experiences, a successful internship program is a two-sided affair. Veteran designers, after all, can learn a lot from their transient millennials—be it digital skills, the acumen for juggling so many things at once, or even a mind-opening Spotify playlist. Picture a meaningful internship both as transitional experience and a bridge across generations.