By Ellen Loots and Rūta Skujiņa

Work in the cultural industry has been labelled ‘affective labour’: many workers experience a strong affective attachment to arts and culture, originating and resulting in feelings of wellbeing, connectedness and excitement (cf. Hardt and Negri 2000). Young aspirant workers find the industry a highly appealing work environment, despite increasing evidence of drawbacks of cultural work, including underemployment, low pay and health problems due to the flexibility and insecurity that come with working in the cultural industry. Being able to enter such a labour market often requires a set of unpaid work experiences, including internships. How (un)fair is that?

Internships are work-based learning experiences. When they are unpaid and the standard after education, they imply an opportunity cost and add to the formation of obstacles to the socio-economic mobility that (public) education seeks to attenuate. Indeed, the ‘fairness of the intern economy’ has become a topic of debate and lawsuits, by which the cultural industry is not unaffected. Unpaid internships ‘exacerbate the problem of wealth inequality by inculcating in our youngest workers the expectation that a certain amount of unpaid labour is a necessity for “success” in the contemporary economy’ (Discenna 2016, 437), a phenomenon that was found pertinent in cultural sectors. Internships have been identified as the only route into them.

For the employer, internships could provide cost advantages: they entail human capital usage at the cost of training, and, when paid, payment is lower compared with regular jobs. Internships provide flexibility, because interns who do not meet the performance standards of an organisation can be easily discharged. However, internships in the cultural industry have been found associated with questionable employer practices, including poor learning content and working conditions, inadequate compensation and the usage of interns as substitutes for regular staff, with organizations repeatedly renewing internship contracts without ever offering permanent positions. Young people are eager to do internships chiefly to acquire the credentials believed to enhance their chances to bridge the gap between education and employment. Out of fear of others taking those positions and losing the prospects of working in such a preferred industry, graduated students believe that refusing the conditions put by employers may be a waste of their resources spent on education.

The demand side of internships has remained relatively understudied: questions as to what extent employers in the cultural industry make use of internships, which employers do so, why and how they do so, are largely unaddressed. Based on data of over 900 available positions in the cultural industry in Belgium, collected from the website of the government agency responsible for cultural affairs in the French-speaking part, we examined the demand for intern workforce and addressed issues such as substitution and efficacy in the intern economy (the joint demand for and supply of internship positions). Substitution occurs when employers hire interns instead of regular workers; internship efficacy includes features as compensation, supervisor behaviour (mentoring and support) and work content.

Our findings are along the following lines.

  • Interns seem to become involved in manifold activities, indicating that they execute rather rewarding work from which they can learn. At the same time, this could indicate that there is substitution of regular workforce by internships.
  • Previous experience is appreciated, wanted or required for several internship positions (40% of the internship positions in the dataset), which is in contrast with the idea of an internship as a work-based learning experience.
  • While not recent, Eurobarometer data of 2013 indicate that 81% of internships across sectors in Belgium were unpaid and that 59% of European respondents had their last internship experience unpaid.
  • In sectors where resources are limited, compensation could come in other forms: aspirant workers may value the guidance by a mentor, role models or other aspects that make the internship a unique learning experience. For example, internships could provide interns with the inside knowledge and skills needed for cultural work, with access to a social network, and with the hallmark of a work experience at a renowned institution.
  • Employers are frequently not explicit in their adverts’ specifications, which can indicate a lack of organisations’ awareness of the internship regulation and/or a lack of commitment, for example in relation to the attainment of interns’ educational goals.
  • Youth, education and interdisciplinary organisations appear more likely to be recruiting regular employees, whereas organisations operating in the performing arts, heritage, audio-visual and visual arts posted more adverts for internships, with the visual arts sector (namely galleries) taking the lead.
  • Most organizations recruit either employees or interns, a finding that can be explained in different ways. Either the types of positions reflect an organisation’s needs: whereas some organisations could need consecutive temporary (internship) labour, other organisations may be growing and in need of new staff members. Yet, the preference for either internships or fixed staff positions could also reflect the culture or habits of an organization: some organisations are more inclined to hire permanent staff compared with others that prefer loose and temporary engagements.

In our paper, we explain how the expansion of education leads to a reduction of the signalling role attributed to education, and thus to education’s flagging effects on class mobility: when many more aspirant workers possess educational qualifications, it becomes less evident for employers to rely on educational achievements as a signal of qualifications. As a result, employers seek for alternative signals of the quality of prospective workforce, and this is where internships come in. However, young graduated students from underprivileged backgrounds may find it difficult to engage in unpaid internships, because of the opportunity cost they imply. Therefore, while the value of educational achievement as a qualifier diminishes, that of on-the-job experiences may rise, leading to disadvantages for individuals who cannot afford unpaid work after graduating. We argue that the intern economy is affected by a market failure that originates in the democratisation of higher education concurring with increasing numbers of graduated students entering the market.

Are we suggesting abolishing internships because they are unfair? Certainly not. But employers in the cultural industry could make a clearer distinction between internship opportunities for a junior workforce during education, and those for graduated students presumably having greater skills. The former may benefit from full-time internship opportunities for a few consecutive weeks as part of their education programs, while the latter may seek either short-term project-based learning experiences or part-time engagements (preferably compensated). Both type of interns gain ‘a foot in the door’ to enter the cultural labour market – even if they have to make a living doing other type of work.

This contribution is based on:

Rūta Skujiņa & Ellen Loots. 2020. “The intern economy in the cultural industry: an empirical study of the demand side.” Journal of Education and Work, DOI: 10.1080/13639080.2020.1820961

About the authors:

Ellen Loots is an assistant professor in cultural economics and entrepreneurship at Erasmus University, Rotterdam.

Rūta Skujiņa is a project manager in arts and culture with a master’s degree in arts & culture studies (specialisation in cultural economics and entrepreneurship) from Erasmus University, Rotterdam. Rūta’s Master Thesis is accessible here.


Discenna, T. 2016. “The discourses of free labour: Career management, employability, and the unpaid intern.” Western Journal of Communication 80(4): 435-452.

Hardt, M. and A. Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

TNS Political and Social. (2013). The experience of traineeships in the EU. summary. (No. Flash Eurobarometer 378). European Commission: Brussels.

About the image:

Brussels‘ (2019) by Yohann LIBOT

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