Nathan Leigh Davis is a designer and developer who writes about design, technology and things that inspire him.

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Internships vs Apprenticeships

The journey from printing apprentice to qualified compositor in the time of Gutenburg was a long one. A ‘master printer’ would assume responsibility for an apprentice, typically a young man aged between fifteen and twenty, who would be taught the skills of the trade over a prolonged period of service. They would typically prepare inks, dampen paper and assist with the operation of the press. However they would also be taught Latin and theory under the tutelage of a journeyman (qualified printer) or the master printer himself. Like other professions at the time, printing apprentices served the one master for the duration of their apprenticeship and relied on them for food and board. Once their apprenticeship was completed though, they became a journeyman and were free to find employment elsewhere. It was these highly qualified journeymen printers who would eventually facilitate the spread of printing throughout Europe and abroad.

In modern times the apprenticeship model has been discarded by the graphic design profession. Instead entry to the industry is now typically preceded by undertaking some type of tertiary education. In Michael Bierut’s essay titled Why Designers Can’t Think, he offers a glimpse at what the industry thinks of design education when he questions the ability of design schools to produce industry ready graduates.

After several years of working in the industry I’ve come to realise this view is an extremely common one. The industry largely believes design education is inadequate. The problem is further compounded by the number of graduates seeking employment each year. The belief concerning the inadequacy of graduates and the educational institutes which trained them, has manifested itself in the form of unpaid internships.

Typically internships involve graduates undertaking underpaid or ‘voluntary’ work at a studio for a short period of time. The idea is that graduates receive compensation for their labor in the form of crucial work experience, rather than money. Many would therefore argue internships are a stepping stone from tertiary study to working within the industry. While this may sound good in theory, in practise a lot of employers typically consider interns as a free source of labor, one that can be exploited to complete mundane and trivial tasks. Such work fails to provide an experience that is of benefit to graduates. Despite this though, a lot of employers actually think that they’re doing interns a favor! For many graduates their first experience of the industry is a bitter one.

Internships are also discriminatory. If unpaid internships are the only way to enter the industry, it becomes an impossible task for those from less privileged backgrounds, who cannot rely on someone to pay their way. Of particular concern too is that interns working in other industries are beginning to actually pay employers for the experience! Imagine paying for the ‘privilege’ of fetching coffee and stocking the stationery cupboard!

Fortunately for me I didn’t have to do an unpaid internship to get my foot in the door. It’s just as well because I make shit coffee and would have probably become pretty surly if I wasn’t getting paid. I was lucky enough to complete a year of industry placement as part of my university education. It was an experience I liken to an apprenticeship. I was paid a small, but satisfactory wage and received exposure to all areas of the business. While I had to earn my stripes by PhotoShopping the studio’s folio, I was still fortunate enough to work alongside the creative director and senior designers on high profile projects. The experience was beneficial not only for me, but my employer too. I felt indebted to the studio that had taken me on and those who had shared their knowledge with me. I worked there for another eighteen months and only left when the studio closed down.

Because of my experience I believe it is not only the responsibility of educational institutes to address the gap that exists between design education and working within the industry, but employers too. If studios, agencies and design firms want industry ready graduates they need to shoulder some of the responsibility by ditching unpaid short-term internships and offering training programmes that are more closely aligned to the apprenticeship model.

At the very least this means offering longer internships, which are paid and allows interns to work alongside the most senior staff on important projects. The economic downside of hiring graduates would be well and truly addressed, by converting them to highly adept design professionals and long serving employees.

On a larger scale it’s critical for the industry to acknowledge the inadequacies of short-term internships and to find an alternative, involving both industry and education. I’d argue that a model such as Swinburne’s industry placement programme should become the norm, not just in Australia, but abroad too. Design schools need to play a role in coordinating internships and other training programmes and industry bodies such as AGDA and AIGA need to foster cooperation between industry and education and actively discourage unpaid internships.

For those graduating now though I’d recommend seeking out the best internships. Those that last for a long period of time and are paid. It’s far more likely that employers offering this type of experience are interested in cultivating long term employees, which means they’ll actually offer beneficial experience and training. Ask questions too. How much time will I spend with the creative director? What tasks will I be doing? In short acknowledge that you haven’t yet completed your education and seek out an experienced professional or team who will take you under their wing and show you the ropes, instead of simply asking you to fetch their Latte.