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The Shadow Industry of Internships

By Joshua Williams

2 Dec 2021

Business

Joshua Williams

Due to the specialized nature of retail and fashion, training “on the job” has always been an integral part of the industry. In some cases, this learning was informal, particularly in family run businesses, but it was also formal through apprenticeships, where young people were hired to learn a trade at an atelier with the goal for them to become full-time employees. These individual apprenticeships also led to internal certification programs–especially at larger retailers–wherein this learning could be provided at scale, albeit still at a local level. For example, Neiman Marcus’ training program in Dallas or Macy’s training program in New York City. However, as fashion became more corporatized and globalized, these informal and formal types of learning largely disappeared, or shifted to an HR function, leaving a gap in the employee training process.

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Concurrent with the shift of fashion education into degree-focused programs was the growth of internships, wherein companies would collaborate with academic institutions to hire non-paid workers to do low level jobs–with the promise that students would get real-world experience and training, and possibly a job at the end of their internship. In theory, this system seemed to benefit all students, especially if an internship was built into a program. But in practice, internships have largely favored the economically advantaged, has normalized unpaid work, and often doesn’t lead to a full time job.

First, internships have largely favored the economically advantaged for a few reasons. One, students who have more economic means have a stronger network–often through their parents–to access internships in general, and better internships more specifically. Two, because internships are tied to credits (as a way to legalize unpaid work), students are essentially paying for their own internship. So students must make a decision between paying for an internship, or paying for another elective, not to increase their base tuition. Those with economic means can more easily do both. And three, students often must work in order to pay for their college experience. Doing an internship on top of school and a paying job is almost impossible. And it’s rare that schools will allow a paid job to count as an internship–and if they do, then students are essentially paying to work their own job and not benefitting from additional courses in their major. On top of this, many students will choose schools in areas such as New York City or London to study, in order to access internships. The cost of living and studying in these areas is substantially more than at local universities. The net outcome is that students with means have more opportunities for internships and then jobs upon graduation. And this means that the funnel of incoming employees doesn’t match the diversity of the student population, thus perpetuating systemic racism within the retail and fashion industries.

Additionally, with the precipitous growth of fashion programs and fashion students, the internship market has become increasingly competitive. And so, companies are able to raise the bar in expectations for hiring an intern. It’s not unusual then to see internship job descriptions that read more like a first or second full-time paid job. The perfect example of this was the McQueen internship debacle in 2013 that was seeking a highly skilled designer to be an intern. And with the shift of the economy towards technology, many companies take advantage of digitally native students to support certain areas of their business such as social media, rather than hiring fully paid employees. This has the effect of decreasing pay then for new hires–because the “expert work” is already being done for free.

What’s more, due to the complexity of worker’s rights laws for students from other countries, internships are also part of a deeper conversation about higher education in general. For example, it’s not unusual for international students to study in the US, in order to get Optional Practice Training, known as OPT, in order to extend their stay in the US with the hopes of securing a job and a longer term visa. Universities are means then to a larger goal beyond education.

Because of these issues, a spotlight has been placed on the shadow industry of internships. States like New York have enacted laws to ensure more transparency in internship programs–requiring pay or credits–in return for the work. The UK has a law against unpaid internships altogether. And while these have helped to a degree, the reality on the ground for students is still mostly unchanged, suggesting that there is a need to provide students with more meaningful “on the job” learning experiences and real skills, along with a pathway to fully paid employment.

In our next episode, we discuss how American and European universities–especially in the area of fashion education–rely heavily on international students, especially from China and India, who are willing to pay full tuition, effectively changing how local students are able to access education in their own countries.
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