I know you meant well. It’s time to stop managing unpaid interns.

Unpaid internships often get talked about at the high level – what museums and boards and grant awarders and accreditation orgs and graduate programs and so on should do to put an end to them.

Of course I agree with these sentiments, but this time I want to call upon a different, equally powerful audience to act. If you’re an entry-to-mid level museum worker who trains or manages interns as part of your day-to-day work, this one’s for you.

Here’s what I ask of you:

By this Labor Day, tell your boss that you’re no longer OK with managing unpaid interns.

The time, energy, and resources you have put into developing your interns are real and probably have had real impact. With exposure to your training and network, your interns have honed their talents and perhaps even gone on to get great jobs.

But these individual successes come at indefensible cost to the museum field and every worker in it, including your interns and yourself. This cost can be summed up in two points:

  1. While aspiring workers who can afford to forgo paid jobs for months at a time get ahead in their careers, others–disproportionately people of color–get shut out.
  2. Interns bring knowledge and skills to your museum from their education and prior work experiences. Valuing their abilities at zero lowers the bar for salaries for all your museum’s staff.

Here are some better ways you can help aspiring museum workers start their careers:

  • Help them research paid positions where they can gain transferable skills for museum work, even if outside of museums.
  • When hiring for paid positions, evaluate applicants’ abilities based on transferable skills, even if gained outside of museums.
  • Coach them on improving cover letters, resumes, interviews, and salary negotiations.
  • Connect them to your professional network through email introductions, social media, and low cost community events such as happy hours.
  • Create volunteering opportunities at your museum that people can sustain alongside full time employment at other organizations–max 5 hours per week, flexible schedules.

Have courage and raise this conversation with your boss this summer.

Let me know how it goes.

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