When is it okay to be an intern?

Nicole McKenzie  
April 19, 2017

Working without financial reimbursement is a contentious issue. Some people swear they will never do it while others swear by it. Some long-term arts professionals have rarely needed to work for nothing, while some of the brightest upcoming arts professionals have done nothing but donated their time to the arts.

So when is it okay and when it crossing a line? We spoke to some arts professionals who got their starts as interns and volunteers to see what they had to say on the issue.

It’s okay to intern when…

Both parties are benefiting

“The intern should be contributing to the organisation in a tangible way, so that they know their work is valued and useful. They should also be gaining meaningful skills or experience that will be beneficial to them in the future, building professional networks, and getting a sense of the industry so they can plan where they might like to go next in their professional development.” – Veronica Sullivan, Prize Manager of the Stella Prize

You are financially stable

“Unpaid internships cost money when you account for things like transport and unpaid time that could otherwise be spent earning a wage…  It sounds absurd, but I saved up money working a full-time job so that I could quit and do an unpaid internship.” Christina Taylor, Marketing and Publicity Coordinator at Black Inc. Books

You have a skills gap and the internship will teach you these skills

“A lot of us in the arts see interning and volunteering as part of an unofficial apprenticeship; you learn valuable skills on the job that complement those you learn through formal study. That’s certainly the way it was for me.” – Sarah Jansen, Managing Director at Scribble Creative

You are passionate about the position or the company

“Applicants should look for internship positions that they are excited by and genuinely interested in.” – Veronica Sullivan

It’s not okay to intern when…

You are essentially an unpaid staff member

“You are there to learn on the job. You are not there to simply perform unpaid labour.” – Christina Taylor

“Interns shouldn’t spend their entire time doing work that is dull, repetitive or menial – admin is an unfortunate but necessary part of every workplace, however it should never be the primary focus of an internship. If the organisation relies solely on interns to take care of tasks that would otherwise be filled by a paid employee, in my view that is exploitation.” – Veronica Sullivan

How to avoid a potentially exploitative internship

“Make sure the internship information makes it clear that there are clear learning opportunities for you, professional connections to be made and/or states that you will get a professional reference once successfully complete the internship.” – Christina Taylor

It’s important to put consideration into where you donate your time and skills and why; Sarah Jansen chose to volunteer for indie projects that she believed deserved support and would help her career and credits this to her success today: “strategic volunteering made my career and saved my soul.”

Nicole McKenzie is a creative producer for the Emerging Writers’ Festival 2017.

Interns who are concerned that they should be paid should review the relevant Fair Work Ombudsman’s guide. The MEAA is the relevant union for the creative industries – concerns about such internships can be raised via this online form.

For a more normative analysis of how unpaid internships entrench inequality, limit the growth of industry, and for an analysis of the gendered nature of unpaid work, review page 13-15 of this paper by Interns Australia.

For more professional development advice, buy tickets to the National Writers’ Conference.