NEW YORK, NY – What It’s Like Having an Unpaid Internship in NYC When I first got the job as a sales intern at a fashion company on Fifth Avenue I was thrilled - here I was making it in New York City, one of the most professionally-challenging cities in the world. I knew from the start that the position was going to be unpaid, and I was OK with it. I thought I would be gaining some sales experience, making connections, and learning how the fashion industry worked. I, however, was in for a huge surprise.
The first week of my internship it was market week, which is when different department stores come and shop our newest collection. The entire week my job was to simply dress models, hang up clothes, and pick up food orders. I was not helping with any part of the sales aspect of the job; I was just cleaning up after the appointments and getting food ready for the clients.
During this first week I asked if the company could cover my transportation to and from work: two NYC Metro rides a day. My supervisor said she would check with human resources and get back to me – which she never did the entire month that I worked there even after multiple reminders. The company also offered to order lunch for the paid models, yet never asked me if I, the intern who was working for free, wanted a meal. Although I didn’t like my first week, I had hope that my tasks would become more educational and interesting as we transitioned from market week to normal business days.
However, a couple weeks in I was still faced with the grunt work. Most days I would sit around and twiddle my thumbs until my supervisor could think of something for me to do. When she did have something, it was mostly just mindless manual labor. One day I had to peel and place 80 stickers onto tags and then search for and tag those 80 different pieces of clothing.
There are many reasons to take an unpaid internship – experience, connections, learning the ins and outs of a particular field. However, I very quickly realized that I didn’t want to go into fashion. I was getting nothing out of the job, and my colleagues weren’t treating me with the respect I deserved for the amount of time and work I was putting into their company for free. Furthermore, it no longer became financially possible for me to continue to work for free.
According to Investopedia, New York is the most expensive city in the United States to live in. The opportunity cost of working there for free was much too high, as I could have been spending the time working shifts at another job. After a month I finally decided to quit.
The unpaid internship might have been worth it if I wanted to go into fashion. That might just be how the industry is: you pay your dues at the beginning because that’s your way to break in. My supervisor told me that all the fashion internships she had during her college years were unpaid also. But it is a luxury to be able to work for free, and after a month of living in New York City it was a luxury I could no longer afford.