On October 19, 2021, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) issued a statement reaffirming its opposition to unpaid internships, a practice which still occurs all too often within the profession. A recent NCARB survey revealed that approximately 32 percent of students or recent graduates had seen listings for or been offered unpaid internship positions. While this statistic was based on only 500 responses, it is still a more significant percentage than one would hope to see.
Instances of unpaid internships have long plagued the profession. The practice is likely a carryover from the past, when such arrangements were more acceptable and even considered a rite of passage. That time has long since passed, and the idea of using someone’s labor without compensation is now understood to be disrespectful to both the individual and the profession. Not only does it devalue an individual’s contribution, it also reinforces the concept that the services and labor of our profession are not valuable, which is especially problematic when the architectural profession is struggling to prove its value to the public at large.
Another problem with unpaid internships is that, as students graduate from college and move into the workforce, many carry significant amounts of educational debt. Not paying wages for their work only exacerbates the financial woes of the next generation of architects. While many universities offer required internship programs as part of their degree plan, they may not require that providers compensate students for their work during this period of employment. The argument that students bring limited value to the firm while requiring significant training is no excuse for nonpayment. Even if they are filing papers or completing trivial tasks, a firm would still need to pay someone to complete that work. Students may be a source of cheap labor, but they should never be a source of free labor.
NCARB makes another important point: Unpaid internships have an impact on the diversity of the workforce. Data suggests that minorities and new professionals over the age of 40 all have difficulty finding quality internship opportunities. According to NCARB’s joint study on diversity with the National Organization of Minority Architects, these groups are the most likely to take unpaid positions. This study also suggests that lower-income students and women are similarly more likely to take unpaid internships. Data collected by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that women account for 81 percent of all unpaid internships. These tendencies serve to further reduce what is already a lack of diversity feeding into the field of architecture. Unpaid positions can create a pinch point in a career trajectory, resulting in a loss to the profession.
Andrew Hawkins, AIA, is principal of Hawkins Architecture in College Station and an assistant professor of practice in the architecture department at Texas A&M University.