Following my last post about the Dalkey Archive Press advert for unpaid interns I received an email from publisher John O’Brien. I think it sheds some interesting light on the issue so here it is in full:
‘What started out as an announcement of two hires and then hoped-for interns who would become hires (putting aside my “characteristics” sections, if you can), all internships are on hold and will quite likely not resume.
We are deluged with requests (paid or unpaid) for internships, and usually take on more than we can properly handle because people are rather desperate to get the experience, without which they cannot get the first door opened for them for a job.
I’ve always been very conscientious about what the kind of duties that interns have, and sometimes that’s like walking a tightrope. Is packing up reviewer copies good experience or is it using interns that we would otherwise have to be paying someone? I come down on the side of not having them do such things, while also aware that I would prefer to hire someone who has done such packing so that he/she knows all the things that can go wrong.
So, the interns are given serious assignments but the rub here is how much time goes into training them, going over their work with them, and even finding enough projects to give them. There are real costs that we incur: the time spent training and the time monitoring them; the supplies; the equipment; and at times, the cost of bringing them to fairs or festivals (by some thought to be “using them” but thought by staff, more often than not, as interference). The biggest drain, though is the time.
With publishing in particular, interns arrive with little or no knowledge that is immediately useful. Even if they were being used as “slave labor,” they don’t know how to do the labor, and therefore it’s not possible to use them. And I am here describing the potentially serious ones rather than those who are more or less testing the waters.
In brief, these are people who could not be hired because they do not yet have the experience and skills necessary to do the work. Should a company pay them? In the best of all possible worlds, perhaps, but it would be a very strange situation. As you may know, entry level jobs in publishing are low-paying, and can remain so for a few years. The rule of thumb is that someone fresh out of college takes about three years to learn and experience enough to be able to do the job. So, they are sitting next to or near interns who, on an hourly basis, are making almost as much? This does not tend to promote good morale. I’ve seen this problem at work the few times we were able to get grants to pay interns.
Arts organizations generally are cash-strapped even in good times, and I think feel that their contribution to this whole process is their time and other expenses. Perhaps they should think differently, but this probably puts them in the position that we are now: don’t take on interns. Staff have to find time for them that they don’t have to give, and then there are 4-6 interns who are being paid to be educated?
I have no solutions for this whatsoever. Perhaps we will finally just cut back to one at a time, choosing only someone who is overly bright and has a track record of accomplishments that will minimize the risk of what we might be able to realize as a benefit.
I know you asked a simple question, and this is a long-winded answer. But the situation is a complicated one.’
When I emailed for his agreement to publish what he had said, he added:
‘Feel free to do so. I could also tell that your question was a real one. Martin, I couldn’t imagine that anyone would see what’s in the employment section other than those who normally go to our site: the initiated into Dalkey’s (or my!) irony.
In my way, it was [an] announcement that I don’t have much longer to be at the helm, and I’m looking for some serious people to step forward who are interested in the challenge. I usually run such things past others at the Press, and one of them would have asked what will happen if someone who doesn’t know me or the Press reads what follows the grand announcement. And then the ad would, I suppose, have been the usual “must be well-organized, willing to take on challenges,” etc. The “unpaid” would have stayed, I’m afraid. But there were also two positions I was looking to fill.
But then there was a part of it – as with ironic statements – that was saying: Please, let’s not waste each other’s time; if you want to be a part of the Press’s future, realize what you’re getting into. Publishing is a demanding profession, but the rewards in it are great, just usually not in monetary ways.
I think I told the journalist at the Irish Times that I thought that interns suffered, not for the reasons that many have pointed out in responses to me, but because they don’t know what’s at stake for them in an internship and what’s being quietly looked for. In my clumsy way in the ad, I wanted this made clear. I don’t know of any employer who doesn’t use internships as a means of finding future employees, and so of course such things as consistently arriving late, missing deadlines, arrogance, and halfhearted efforts are noticed. And yet, interns aren’t usually aware that this is what’s going on. In the meantime, the employer is asking, “Do I really want someone around who is doing these things when a possible job is at stake? What will they be like if they had the comfort of a job?”
All right, I’ll stop here. If you can help make things better, or at least clear, go forth!’
More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us.