"At the time, I thought it was a fair amount", a fellow student tells me, reflecting on an internship they did three years ago, "it was my first time getting a salary, so any amount of money was exciting. Looking back on it now, I would really find it too little." A different student tells me how frustrating it is not getting paid at her current internship, "my enthusiasm decreases by the day", she says. I know she's joking, but I also know there must be some truth to what she tells me. These and many more messages like it are what I received when I asked a number of my peers, all students at our faculty, for their thoughts and feelings about the internships they have done. Despite internships being a nearly integral part of our current education, it seems we haven't reached common ground on what they should really be. For all the potential an internship has on paper, it seems my fellow students are often disappointed and disillusioned by the reality.
In the vein of 'Cheap', the central question I asked was: 'how much did you get paid per month at your internship?' The follow up question: 'did you find this a fair payment for the work you did?' Across 61 different internships done in seven different European countries by 46 students, the average pay, adjusted for number of hours worked per week, was €477 per month. Of these 61, five internships were completely unpaid, though for one of these travel expenses were compensated. Of course, cost of living varies per country. In the Netherlands, where 51 of these 61 internships were done, the average salary was €498 per month. Rounding this up, I think it's fair to say that a large portion of internships that students at our faculty do pay €500 per month for a 40 hour week.
To put that into perspective, in the Netherlands, the minimum wage is calculated based on your age; at the age of 21 or older, minimum wage is €9,82 per hour. Assuming you work a full-time, 40 hour per week position, this means you would earn approximately €1700 a month before taxes. If you're over 21, €500 per month is 29,4% of the minimum wage, less than one-third. Say you work an average of 21 days per month rounded down, which is the case for everyone that works a standard 40 hour week, that means you theoretically work 168 hours per month. That comes down to €2,98 per hour, a measly sum of money no matter what type of work you are doing. And then, €2,98 per hour doesn't take into account the reason I say 'theoretically'; many students told me that they were expected to stay beyond regular hours, especially when deadlines were nearing. Were they compensated for this overtime? Of course not. If you're lucky, the office might compensate you for your travel costs or provide you with a nice lunch every day. This is a bonus, but not necessarily the norm. It's clear that you don't do an internship for the money. I don’t think that was the idea of doing an internship in the first place, a sentiment many of my fellow students probably share. Despite this, many problems arise from the way we currently do internships.
"I found 200 Euros a month very little for the work they had me do. They didn't give me any challenges, I pretty much just made plans and [3D] models, the chores that they didn't have time to do."
For starters, it's easy for architectural offices1 to abuse an intern. Students looking for an internship are in a vulnerable and impressionable position, especially if it's the first one they're doing. If it's your first time working a 'real' job, you don't know what to expect and you don't know what's normal. You may not recognize when you're being mistreated and you don't have a voice to speak up with if you are. You probably don't know what your skills and time are worth, and you have no bargaining chips when you're setting up a contract; you don't have the power to negotiate your pay because if the office doesn't like what you say, they will just go to the next person in line. In other words, you can't really fight for your rights, and no one else is going to do it for you.
As a student, internships are something you constantly hear your peers talking about; "wow, they got an internship at this office, they got an internship at that office." There's a certain excitement surrounding it, a need to prove that you too have what it takes to do 'real' work. Soon enough, you're suffering from FOMO, afraid you will miss out on an opportunity that could make or break your future. So you take what you can get, even if that means doing work you didn't want to do, for an amount of money you don't think is fair.
Yes, there are great offices that offer great internships focused on learning, personal development, making connections, building your skills not only as an architect but also as a functioning team player. To these offices I say, keep doing what you are doing, this is the kind of internship that architecture students want to do, and are probably happy to do for €500 a month. But I've heard from too many fellow students that all they did during their internship was make Revit models to believe that the majority of architectural offices operate this way. That should not be the job of a student intern, that's the job of a BIM-modeller, a position that usually pays many times more than €500 a month. Food for thought?
"At the time I found it fair, because I compared it to what other students were getting paid and they were getting a similar amount. If you calculate it though, it was something like €2 per hour."
Little pay for hard work perpetuates the norm that architecture students must struggle for their craft. A norm that does enough damage to mental health as it stands does not need to be made worse by architectural offices that expect interns to work long hours outside of their contractual obligations. Working architects, ask yourself this: even if you yourself had to struggle hard to make it to where you are today (perhaps your boss had to struggle hard before that, and their boss before that), is this what you want to pass on to the next generation? If you ask me; the late nights, the stress, the unhealthy habits, the pressure to perform, the non-constructive feedback, the ego, these are things we should leave behind. Call me a snowflake, but I don't want to have a burnout by the time I'm 30. Don't make an intern you're already paying very little work more hours than contractually obligated, deadline or no deadline. Because they won't say no, they don't think they're in a position to be able to.
"The first place I worked at, I usually had to work 1-2 extra hours per day. The second place was worse, 2-4 extra hours per day."
So, how do you afford to live on €500 per month? Well, there's a few options; spend the savings you've been building up for years. Or, be fortunate enough to have parents that support you financially and can pay for a large part of your living costs while you do this internship. Alternatively, work a separate job on the weekends that pays a living wage. This means working 6 or 7 full days per week, certainly not a healthy thing to do, neither physically nor mentally. Another option; borrow the money from the government via a student loan. If you want a student loan, you need to be registered as a student, so you have to pay tuition, about €1000 per semester (also the typical time frame of an internship). That's already a ridiculous paradox; you can't afford to do an internship so you need to have a loan of which a portion has to go to paying tuition to an institution you're not attending so that you're eligible to even get this loan in the first place. An added benefit if you're Dutch: you can now travel for free on public transport, another thing that the office where you intern can abuse and deduct from your already measly salary.
Say that your living costs are €1000 per month; rent, food, purchases, everything included. The office you intern at pays you €500, half of your monthly living costs. Your parents can't financially support you, so you have a student loan to cover the rest of the costs, another €500 per month, from which the €167 per month for tuition has already been subtracted. What this factually means is that you literally need to go into debt, about €4000 over a six month period, to be able to do an internship. Now, if you see the internship as another part of your studies, you may be fine with this. If you ask me though, this is an abominable injustice; if this is your situation, you're not getting paid €500 per month by the office you are interning at, you are paying to be able to work there in the form of debt, debt that you have to pay back once you finish studying. You are generating revenue for the office while you yourself are going into debt.
By now I hope you're thinking, "this is terrible". Well, to make it worse, companies that offer internship positions can request a subsidy of up to €2700 per year per position from the Dutch government.2 If that's not the most backwards part of the whole situation then it's probably the fact that you're expected to have done of these internships if you want a decent job after your studies that would enable you to pay back this debt. Is doing an internship a privilege only reserved for students with caring parents that support them financially? It kind of seems like it…
"I really had to fight for the travel cost compensation, because they just wanted me to use my free travel product as a student."
In their current form, it starts to look a lot as if internships are a means for architectural offices to abuse students to their own benefit under the guises of 'education' and 'experience'. This needs to change. Architectural offices, I implore you to consider what kind of internship you are offering students. If you give your interns only the monotonous tasks that your regular architects don't want to do; building 3D models, doing sun studies, making Lumion renders and the like, if you expect them to work extra hours with no compensation, if you're too cheap to provide them with lunch and pay for their travel costs, and if you're not going to give them the chance to share their thoughts and do some designing of their own so that they can learn something, then perhaps it's better that you don't offer any internship positions at all.
"I did find the payment fair at the time, I think especially because I was getting more than all my friends. But also I had no idea how much a normal salary was. That was never something discussed until I became good enough friends with working colleagues to talk about it."
As important as internships have become for our education, I think some responsibility from the faculty starts to come into play as well. Having done the Bachelor at our faculty myself, I think more could be done to prepare students for doing internships, and by extension preparing them for working in the field at a later stage. Practical lessons about how to negotiate a contract and what to expect at your first internship could be a start. A support system for students that are struggling during their internships, perhaps in the form of someone that can guide them through difficult situations could also help. This does exist for Bachelor students doing an internship during the Minor semester, but could be expanded to offer support for students doing internships between their Bachelor and Master, or during their Master. Additionally, a fund or grant for students that can’t afford to do an internship could help to level the playing field and equalize the opportunities we all have.
Finally, to my fellow students, know what your time and skills are worth. Do your research, and go into an internship with realistic expectations. Be reasonable, work hard to get the most out of it, but don't let them mistreat you.