Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Animated Thoughts: Your internship and you

It's June 1st, the school season is winding down, and students should be thinking about (and applying for) summer jobs. In truth, they should've started thinking about this back in February or March, but, some of us are pretty slammed as we approach the end of the semester. So for those people who have struggles like I did back in college, figured I'd revisit a situation I found myself in back in January.

I like to post job listings in the Women in Animation Facebook group, especially internship opportunities--I figure, if someone is going to get that job, why not a young lady who can bring a different perspective that has been arguably lacking from the industry, right?

So I posted a listing for an internship at Disney/Pixar. Immediately, someone tried to pile on with the usual, tired, uninformed "anti-corporation" agenda that you see so often nowadays.

I admit, I was annoyed and more than a little bit tired. After throwing the ball back in their court and watching them backpedal, so as not to be perceived as a total jerk, I wrote the following response:

"I think a better--albeit more verbose--way to state the concerns that I think you and [I] both share would be:

After looking at the opportunities that Pixar has posted on their website, I noticed that there is no compensation listed on their internship job listings. This concerns me. While this information most likely will be provided to the internship seeker later on in the application process, interested parties should take note.

It is my personal opinion that unpaid internships are violations of Federal labor laws, and businesses (both large and small) can use them to get around hiring a more experienced worker who would cost them more money in terms of salary and benefits. Additionally, unpaid internships can intentionally or unintentionally discriminate against students without the economic resources to support themselves during an unpaid internship--which can include many women and minorities who may have the skill and work ethic to perform the required duties but cannot take advantage of said opportunity due to a need to support themselves and/or earn money for the next semester of college.

As an individual freelancer, I am registered as a 'Corporation' in my State--albeit a 'Limited Liability Corporation'. Doing so affords myself a measure of legal protection that being a 'DBA' does not. And as much as I would love to hire interns and give them valuable work experience, I cannot afford to pay an intern at this time. Thus, I have made the difficult decision to be true to my principles and not offer internships at my "Corporation" (although advice and mentoring is always available and free). While I am personally not in the financial position to hire interns, one would hope that a company such as Disney/Pixar--with their prominence in the animation industry and with their impressive annual revenues--would take a leadership role and pay their interns a fair wage AND provide a valuable learning opportunity in exchange for an honest day's work.

Any student interested in the above internship opportunities at Pixar--or any internship for that matter--should discuss with their professors what is a fair wage for interns given the work they will be performing and the geographic region they will be living in BEFORE going into contract negotiations with any company. Additionally, there MAY be grants available for students that would support them during an unpaid internship, then again there may not. In the end, only the student can determine for themselves whether or not an internship opportunity, paid or unpaid, is worth their time and effort. But be smart and do your homework beforehand as there are unscrupulous people out there who will game the system and take advantage of students that are looking for experience and a chance to break into the industry."

For the purposes of this blog post, let's set aside the majority of my diatribe on unpaid internships. Yes, the above is my actual position on the subject and no, while there ARE some out there, I don't believe that every business is looking to take advantage of student interns. However, when you're unprepared for your internship, it becomes difficult to differentiate between a generic crisis or ignorance or actual malice. The real takeaway here is the last sentence. Boiled down to its essence: 'do your homework beforehand!'

Case in point: I had to leave one of my last internships during undergrad because, while it was computer graphics related, the gentleman who owned the company didn't have enough business to keep me busy, he couldn't pay me on a regular schedule, and the office was an hour's drive from where I could afford to live. And don't get me wrong, I really liked him and my co-workers and wanted to see the business succeed--and I did learn a lot in the two weeks that I was there. However, he was somewhat disorganized, I hadn't done my homework to the degree that I should have regarding what my expenses were going to be, and neither of us had a realistic expectation of what work I would be doing while I was there. There was no malice on either of our parts, just a perfect storm of the disorganized meeting the unprepared. After two weeks, I reluctantly had to resign and take a different internship closer to where I was living--even though it wasn't computer graphics related. Fortunately, he understood our mutual situations and we parted on good terms. And although it's always bothered me because I feel like I failed at that job, it was one of those situations that was never covered in my college courses nor in my previous internships. While I handled it as best I could at the time, years later, I can say that it did end up being a valuable life lesson--albeit one that could have been avoided through more diligence on my part.

So, given that the purpose of my life seems to be a cautionary tale for other people, what can we learn here that will spare future interns some grief?

When considering an internship, questions that students should be asking both before and during the interview can be broken down to separate categories. These and their questions include, but are not limited to:

The Job
  1. What tasks are you expected to perform?
  2. To whom are you directly responsible/to whom do you report?
  3. What date does the internship begin? End?
  4. What time of day does work start? Stop? 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.? 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.?
  5. What days will you work? Monday through Friday? Tuesday through Saturday?
  1. What are the pay periods: weekly? Bi-weekly? Monthly?
  2. Does the company take taxes and withholding out of the intern's paycheck or is the intern responsible for paying all taxes and withholding?
  3. Will there be overtime? If so, is said overtime paid? At what rate?
  1. Geographically, where are you going to live during the internship?
  2. Does the internship provide housing or assistance finding housing?
  3. How much will housing cost?
  4. How are you going to get to and from work every day?
  5. Is there public transportation?
  6. Can you drive your car from your residence to work and if so, do you have to pay for parking?
Note: I haven't stated the obvious question: what does the internship pay? That's because you need to consider the "Living" issue before broaching that subject with any potential employer, and this particular issue will inform the rest of this blog post.

I can't stress highly enough that students should put together a budget of what their projected living expenses will be while they are at the internship. Even if it's something as simple as:
  • Rent
  • Utilities/Water/Sewer
  • Gasoline or Bus/Subway pass
  • Food
  • Toiletries (toilet paper, dish soap, paper towels, minor cleaning supplies, laundry detergent)
  • Clothes cleaning (washer/dryer)
The above are the bare essentials. I'm going to assume that you don't have any credit card debt (hah!) or other expenses to speak of just yet.

Once you've identified a potential internship at a specific company, it's time to dig in and start gathering intel for that budget.

Start by looking for apartment complexes in the area. A rental office can tell you if they have apartments for a short-term lease and exactly how much rent is per month for the Summer. Don't forget to ask if they require a cleaning deposit and factor that into your first month's expenses. And especially don't forget to ask if the apartment comes with furniture or not. As a rule, furnished apartments are a little more expensive, but it beats sitting on the floor watching DVDs on your laptop--also, unfurnished apartments don't usually come with shower curtains, just F.Y.I. The rental office will also tell you if utilities (water, electric, sewer) are included in the rental agreement. If it's not, then you'll have to contact the local public utility company before you move in and before you move out to have the utilities turned on for the time you'll be living there and off when you leave. Even if it's not part of the rental agreement, the apartment complex's rental office "should" be able to provide reasonable estimates for utilities. And always ask the rental office if there is a washer and dryer that you will have access to and if so, how much it costs per wash/dry cycle. Also, apartment complexes 'should' have parking spaces, but best to ask just in case you're driving your car to and from work. If you're taking public transportation, ask if there is a bus stop/subway station within walking distance (whatever that may mean for you: 5 min walk, 10 min walk, etc).

An alternative to renting from an apartment complex is to check with colleges and universities in the area around the business. Some of them will rent out student housing over the summer to make a little extra cash for the school during the off season and the prices/amenities may be better than what you could get at an apartment complex.

After performing a quick search for studio apartments in my area, I found one with A/C and refrigerator, free parking, partially paid utilities and a laundry facility for $485 with a $400 deposit. It's within a seven minute drive from the local university and says that they're close to a supermarket.

Gasoline in the area can be estimated by using and doing a search for gas prices using the zip code of the prospective location--expecting that gas will fluctuate (optimistically) only by about 25 to 40 cents per gallon either way depending on external forces. You can use Google maps to figure out how many miles you'll be driving each day, do a sample of gas prices over the span of a week or two, and cross-reference that with your vehicle's gas mileage if you 'really' want to be that detailed, but for most of us, a rough estimate will suffice.

Lastly, unless you want to live on takeout pizza and ramen for the summer, I highly recommend stopping off at the local dollar store for some inexpensive cooking implements, dishes, glasses, and silverware. Ideally, the first place to ask is your relatives. Maybe they have some cookware and such that they'd like to get rid of. That's actually where most of my cookware, dishes and silverware came from. Mom was happy to be rid of them and some I'm still using today over twenty years later. Another option, depending on how much free time you have, is to hit the local garage sales and flea markets where there are lots of bargains to be had.

In any event, I would detail out a sample meal plan for yourself. I usually assume three meals per day, seven days a week on a '1-2-3' budget where breakfast costs X dollars, lunch costs 2X and, dinner costs 2.5 to 3X. Assuming you don't eat at restaurants, if it costs you two dollars for breakfast, then lunch would cost four dollars and dinner would cost from five to six dollars. In our example, eating for one day would cost you from $11 to $12, which translates to about $77 to $84 per week. Again, this is just an estimate, your appetite may vary. Even today, I'm a juice and a granola bar kind of guy. So my breakfast for the whole week only costs me about $5 to $6. That leaves me some flexibility in the food budget for other meals and snacks. While I personally don't recommend the takeout pizza and ramen diet to stretch your budget, the fact is that fruits and vegetables 'can' be a little more expensive than processed foods (and a little hard to find depending on where your internship is, but we'll assume you're not working in a food desert). So, if you want to stay healthy during your internship, plan for a little extra room in your budget for healthy eating.

When you have reasonable estimates for the above categories, the total monthly sum will give you a number for the bare minimum you will have to make in order to live while working at the internship.

If we use the examples listed above for our monthly budget, we're looking at:

Clothes cleaning:$24.00$30.00$35.00
Monthly Total:$927.00$1,055.00$1235.00

The minimum wage here in Michigan is $8.50/hour. Assuming a forty-hour work week, you're looking at $340 per week before taxes or $1,360 per month. Your average tax rate being single, a dependent of your parents (meaning, they're probably claiming you on their taxes), and making minimum wage is approximately 6.28% (source: So, on average, you're looking at $854.08 take home pay per month. As you can see from the numbers in our example, you wouldn't even make the minimum amount necessary to live in the area. So, you're going to have to look at alternatives. Is there a cheaper place to live a little further from your job site? Can you get a roommate to split the costs? Is there a friend or relative you can live with during the Summer? Can you get a part-time job during the evenings or weekends to help out? Or can you negotiate for a higher wage?

In talking these numbers over with my accountant, he told me about several apartment complexes about a fifteen minute drive away from my example's target area where the apartments are in the neighborhood of $415 per month for a studio and upwards of $840 per month for a 2 bedroom apartment. So, the landscape is not as bleak as it may look at first glance, but you'll have to do some digging on the internet and make some phone calls in order to find a good fit for your situation. Always call around!

The end of the school year can be overwhelming with all the exams, projects coming due, and that 'must move out of the dorms' deadline. But doing your homework beforehand demonstrates to a potential employer that you're prepared. The above budget should be determined BEFORE you even talk wages with the recruiter. On the one hand, they have very likely already determined the amount they want to pay for the internship. But on the other hand, you don't want to be in the position where you've accepted an internship offer and then you have to go back and reject it because what they're offering isn't enough to live on while you're there. And don't assume that the HR Director has done their homework on the cost of living in the area. Some internships will only pay minimum wage regardless of what it actually costs to live in the area around the business. Having your numbers figured out beforehand will give you a good bargaining position should you have to attempt to negotiate a wage that is more realistic given the cost of living in that particular geographic location. The HR Director may just dig their heels in on the wage for the internship, but, being able to make a polite, reasoned argument with hard data to back up your position can only help you during negotiations. At the very least, you'll know whether you can take the job or not. Of course, again, you can always take the job so long as you can find a part time job in the same location that you can work during your off hours. Would make for a very busy summer, but sometimes compromises have to be made. Especially if you want to save some money for the next semester!

Disclaimer: The advice being provided is intended to help the reader gather information so that reader can make an educated decision. It is not intended to be all-encompassing nor intended to be legal advice. The author takes no responsibility for your decisions and provides this advice solely as a starting point for your own research that fits your particular situation. "Do your own homework!" :)