You may remember when you were a student—the feeling of freedom, independence, and hope. You and your friends were going to conquer the world. You were going to design the most beautiful spaces featured on magazine covers across the globe. It was a fantastic feeling; I can still feel how invisible I felt.
However, do you also remember how broke you were and the stress of paying for the next semester's tuition or books felt overwhelming? I was one of the lucky ones. My dad, a steamfitter, and paternal grandmother, a factory-worker at Allison's Automotive, skimped and saved to pay for my college tuition and living expenses. It was the biggest blessing.
So many of my students do not have that luxury. Many are working two to three jobs just to survive. Imagine the looks on their faces when I tell them to get an internship, even an unpaid one will help them. Many just shake their heads at me.
I was speaking to one of my interior design students the other day, and she was asking me about getting an internship. She is very talented and could be a real asset to a design firm. She shared that she financially could not take an internship because she needs her job, unrelated to the field, to pay her rent, food, and bills. It hit me that this was one of the saddest situations. Here is an incredibly talented design student with the maturity to do great things in the industry, yet her financial situation is holding her back from pursuing her career goals.
The reality is that many of our students today are living off student loans and working multiple jobs just to advance their education. As an industry, how can we support future designers? It is time we come at this from a place of abundance rather than a scarcity mindset. This shift starts by offering paid internships for design students.
Attract Higher Quality Interior Design Candidates
The truth is that offering students a paid internship has many positive impacts on your business. Research shows that a paid internship will attract better and more qualified interns, up to 2.5 times more than an unpaid internship. One of the main reasons for hiring an intern is to identify a potential new employee. Getting a glimpse of the talent pool and finding a hard worker is a big motivator. With a paid internship, you will have a larger pool of candidates. Unfortunately, many interior design students may pass on your firm to go work at a competitor who is paying interns.
Increase Productivity & Improve Engagement
Interns can help a studio get work done. Whether it is production work, research, or organizing the library, there are a million little tasks that are needed. If I asked you to work for free, would you?
Would you work at your job if you weren't paid? Would you put in the long hours or go the extra mile if you weren't rewarded for the effort? I bet the answer is no. If your boss walked in right now and said, hey, we are going to pay you 75% less, I bet your attitude would dramatically change. I could almost guarantee that you would take one look at the pile of work on your desk, then grab your belongings and head home. Your attitude might be "why bother."
Why would a design student react much differently? They would not. Think about why you reward your employees. Most likely, you want to retain, engage, and motivate your employees. You may also want to build loyalty. Inadequate compensation has a direct correlation on job satisfaction, low productivity, and high turnover. Research shows a direct relationship between pay and the amount of time spent working in the office, answer emails, and even selling.
The Legality of Unpaid Internships
This is something new I learned in researching this topic. According to the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act, if your business is profiting or benefiting from an intern, then the intern can be considered an employee. The U.S. Department of Labor offers a fact sheet that helps you identify whether an intern qualifies as an employee. It looks at things such as the extent to which the internship plays a part of the formal educational process. You might be surprised to learn that many businesses have a legal responsibility to pay interns.
In the research, I found several news articles about interns suing businesses and winning significant judgements for unpaid work. I do not bring this up to scare you, instead give you insight on what to consider when thinking of hiring an intern.
Alleviating the Financial Stress with Paid Internships
It is hard to miss that many recent stories about the college student debt crisis. To better themselves through education, students are betting on their future through student loans. The average student debt is around $35,000.
We are asking students to take an unpaid internship, which equals more student debt. We ask this so they can get experience in the industry to get a job that may or may not pay enough to pay back the college debt in the next 10 years.
The financial burden on students can greatly impact their productivity during school and internships. I have one student who took on three jobs this past semester because he "didn't have a choice." I have had this student in a previous course, and he does excellent work, yet this semester, he was late on nearly every assignment. What changed with the student, it wasn't his desire to do well, because this student is an overachiever. It was purely time necessary to complete the school work. You may say, well, he should have made time. Well, he also should be able to pay his rent and be able to eat.
Financial responsibilities is a key driver of stress and relational issues for all of us. Helping eliminate by paying a student for their work will go a long way in how that student works and engages with your studio.
Interior Design Interns are Hungry for the Experience
Design students wanting a career in this field often go through Arapahoe Community College's interior design program because it is a lower-cost option, yet, still an outstanding program. I would argue that many of my students work harder than working adults I know. The reason is they have to so they can survive.
Imagine one of these students working for you. The hunger and desire to learn are significant, and many are extremely hard workers. They juggle school, jobs, and even families to better their situation. As an industry, we need to work on giving them a chance to be successful. This starts with creating opportunities and providing financial rewards to help them expand their knowledge. And, who knows, you may find that student may teach you a thing or two.
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