Internships: Learning Versus Earning

Monday, 26 October 2015

I sit before a group of bachelors students from Kent State University’s fashion program who have come to the school’s New York City Studio to complete a semester. The experience allows them to be taught by different faculty, many of whom work in the city’s fashion industry,

and to explore other ways of developing a collection that enriches the already-solid preparation they have received back home. The studio is located in Manhattan’s Garment District, so they’re right in the heart of where it all happens. Yet, perhaps as important as the teaching they will receive is the opportunity they’ll have to pick up prime internships––placements they could never have in northeastern Ohio. Today’s group includes interns for Anna Sui, Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs, Alice & Olivia, Milly, among others. And while placements are certainly set up by the school, most of the group say they have organized their own, targeting companies they really wanted to work for.

The Millennial Bug

As Millennials enter the industry, friction inevitably arises between the old guard and the new. Historically there may never have been a greater divide between one generation and the next: this workplace collision of pre-digitals and those who were reared on the abundance of Steve Jobs’s orchard has led to studies of the younger generation’s sense of entitlement, addiction to phones, lack of engagement. Corporate companies provide seminars offering tips for Boomers to manage Millennials. Then a recent eruption of lawsuits from dissatisfied interns against everyone from Condé Nast to Alexander McQueen publicly peaked in August this year when a group of them sued the Olsen twins’ company Dualstar claiming they should have been paid minimum wage plus overtime for their duties that included inputting data into spreadsheets, making tech sheets, running personal errands for paid employees, organizing materials, photocopying, sewing, and pattern cutting.

The cute kids from Full House mistreating interns? Never! Collectively, heads shook with dismay. The youth of today. Bridget Foley of WWD was quick to voice what most were thinking, describing the lawsuits as “episodes of Millennial self-absorption,” both “disingenuous” and “ridiculous.”

Most of the Kent State interns are unpaid. I ask if they feel exploited in any way, but they respond no. I ask them what they learn on internship that is different from their school studies. “It seems more meaningful,” replies one. “It’s what people do for a living, rather than just some school project.” “You learn the social aspect of working,” says another, “which is as important as anything else and nothing like the social aspect of school.” One who is in the leather department of Marc Jacobs says she “never knew the knowledge needed to work with leather.” Many swatches of luxury fabric and professionally executed prints have shown up in their school projects, a result of the companies letting them raid their fabric archives. One girl is hopefully pursuing fabric sponsorship for her forthcoming final collection.

I recently recommended one of my graduates from the associates level program at the Art Institute for a paid internship at a just-launched contemporary company. The graduate ended up leaving after a few weeks. “They wanted me there every day and I couldn’t devote the time to it while trying to set up my own line, plus there were problems with paying me. Actually, I still haven’t been paid.” He was extremely grateful for the recommendation and continued, “I got so much out of it, though. I’ve made contacts with a couple of factories who say they might work with me, and I met an interesting designer also obsessed with upcycling like me and we might end up working together. It really opened my eyes to what’s out there.”

One Intern’s Point of View

Kellie, a student from last fall’s Kent State group who interned for sustainable label, Tara St James, describes thoughtfully the pros and cons of her internship: “At school we finish every aspect of a project on our own, but in the industry, flats, construction, and design work are all done by different people. I learned that the business side of design, such as line sheets and order forms, websites, shipping orders, which is never taught to us in school, is a big part of everyday life in the industry. There were certain tasks, like running errands in Midtown, that I felt like I was doing just because no one else wanted to, but I knew it was mostly because Tara was too busy and needed help, so I was okay with it. I didn't like that I had to do so much production work. My sewing skills really improved, but I knew that I was doing the same tasks as the seamstresses who were getting paid to do it. It was mostly being in this environment that I learned what I wanted to about sustainability. I had the opportunity to go to lectures during the day and seeing the work of so many sustainable designers was very beneficial. I felt that I learned the tasks of a designer more by watching it happen than actually doing it. I was very encouraged when Tara liked some rings I’d made and wanted them in her photo shoot. Tara was very encouraging with everything, and very willing to help. There were many times that she offered to let me test my prints on their printer and has offered me connections for future jobs. I also know people who now have full- time jobs as a result of their college internships. Other highlights would have been watching Tara's company grow and being able to help her with that and getting to do cool stuff like helping at her photo shoot, and going to the Made In New York event at Milk Studios.”

Earning as Well as Learning Potential

Resume building and networking are the major draws of internships, alongside developing a day-to-day understanding of how the industry actually works. Many students dream of working at the great design houses but unfortunately they seem to be the ones most maligned for their internship practices. However, there is earning as well as learning potential if a student has in mind a more commercial career path.

Macy’s has established links with many U.S. fashion programs, but Kent State students are particularly high on their list. Each year they visit the New York Studio to outline their Internship program which recruits juniors for a paid summer internship during which they are immersed in the culture of Macy’s, attending seminars, sitting in on buyers’ meetings, getting to test drive what it’s like to work there. They receive $15 an hour and if they are a good fit, they are offered a full-time position on their Executive Development Plan, effective as soon as they graduate. Few students completing their final year have the luxury of knowing they have a job waiting for them. There’s already something to be said for that. Currently, two Kent State students who did the internship program this past summer have received offers of a full-time position upon graduation.

Incidentally, one of the two is Kellie. Maybe some Millennials just know how to get the most out of every opportunity.

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.