Creating Mutually-Beneficial Partnerships For Retailers & Students
By Michael Raine
What has your experience been with interns in your store? If you answered “non-existent,” you’re not alone. Having high school, college, or university students intern at MI stores seems to be a rare occurrence in this country. From my experience speaking with Canadian MI retailers, and even searching for a Canadian retailer to speak with for this article, I’m surprised by how resistant many are to the idea, or have simply never considered it. South of the border, however, it appears to be the opposite situation.
“I would say we have more of an issue recruiting students who want to go into the music products industry,” says Kim Wangler, M.M, M.B.A, director of Music Industry Studies at the Hayes School of Music at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. Every one of Wangler’s students must find a full-semester internship in the music industry, and many of them go to MI retailers, from large chains like Guitar Center and Sam Ash to independent local stores all over the U.S. “I have many situations where I have retailers and manufacturers calling me and saying, ‘Hey, we need people.’ Of course, I go out to the NAMM Show and everybody is looking for bright, young individuals looking to go into this field.”
Contrast that with the experience of Steve Sherman, who teaches music business and other courses at Red Deer College’s School of Creative Arts in Alberta. Sherman says he would love to see more of his students interning with MI retailers, and has even brought up the topic many times over the years with retailers and manufacturers at the NAMM and MIAC shows and elsewhere, but hasn’t seen much commitment from retailers.
So what are we Canadians missing that our American counterparts obviously find worthwhile? For one, interns (and young people in general) bring with them fresh ideas and perspectives. Let’s be honest; MI store owners don’t tend to be a young group, but for their businesses to thrive and grow, they need young customers.
“I really wasn’t looking for sales people because I realize these kids in school aren’t really selling anything and most haven’t had sales jobs,” says Billy Cuthrell, owner of Progressive Music Center in North Carolina and a frequent NAMM U presenter, talking about what first inspired him to seek out student interns, some of which have come from Wangler’s program. “I was more concerned with social media marketing and trying to attract younger demographics and that kind of thing. I’m 41 now and I’ve noticed that as I get older, I have no problems reaching the parents that are my age, people in their late 30s or early 40s, or even the grandparents because we kind of relate on the same level, but it was the younger kids coming in the door that I was really concerned Progressive was losing touch with. So I really felt like the interns provide an opportunity for us to have somebody that speaks that language and understands that demographic and how to connect with them and get them involved.”
It’s important to emphasize that the point of an internship is not to find some free labour for a couple months. Of course, interns can provide a helping hand around the store, but the overall goal is to aid the education and professional development of these students. While you may choose to hire the student at the end of the internship, or even later on, finding your next employee is also not the main goal. The intern should be working under the guidance of someone of authority within the store, whether that is the owner or manager to learn the business end or the sales and marketing head to learn what works in the real world. As mentioned, for the store to benefit, those supervisors must keep an open mind for fresh ideas.
“Particularly in the digital realm, which is the native environment of these young people, that the rest of us work to keep up with but we’re not indigenous to it,” says Wangler. “I think that’s one of the things I’ve heard from many places is that these kids are just so comfortable in that environment and come up with new and innovative ways to help a store get the word out. They are also young and they can connect with younger customers. Some of our stores have more seasoned veterans in them and having a young face around can’t hurt.”
Of course, student interns can have ideas outside of the digital realm. Cuthrell gives an example of one intern he had from North Carolina State University’s entrepreneurship program that helped him develop a new guitar lesson curriculum. “I thought our guitar curriculum was a little stale and said, ‘We need a modern music lesson program and kind of a different angle on it and these are my thoughts on it.’ We got talking and he said, ‘I’ve got the same kind of feeling’ and we compared notes and said, ‘Oh my god, we’re seeing the exact same thing here. Come in and help me put this thing together.’ Cuthrell says the new program has been a success and the student was hired as a part-time instructor.
Cuthrell’s story, along with an anecdote from Wangler that one of her students interned at a Guitar Center location and is now on track to be a store manager, exemplifies one of the other benefits of an internship program. Internships could act as an extended job interview where the person’s training is subsidized.
“If the person is doing an internship first and they’re paying college tuition for that, that means they are actually subsidizing their own training. That is a huge benefit to an employer,” says Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association. “It means they don’t have to pay to train their own employee. It’s very attractive for an employer because if you hire someone else at the end of their college program, then you’d be paying for those first three months of your training process.”
Know The Law
You may notice that I keep referring to “students” or “student interns.” The laws regarding internships differ from province to province, but one consistent rule is that unpaid internships must be in coordination with an accredited educational institution. Some provinces have criteria for legal, unpaid, non-student internships, but it’s highly advisable to not go in that direction.
“The general rule that employers need to know is that all interns are entitled to wages unless they’re part of a school program. So, if the intern is doing an internship as part of a co-op or any accredited school program at a high school, college, or university, they are exempt from minimum wage laws. Otherwise, they need to be paid,” advises Seaborn. “Also, it doesn’t matter what the intern is called. It doesn’t matter if they’re called an ‘intern’ or ‘apprentice’ or an ‘employee.’ What matters is the work that they are doing and their status.”
In most provinces, there are exemptions for certain kinds of unpaid non-student internships, but as mentioned, it’s best to stay away from such arrangements. In Ontario, for example, there are six criteria that must be met for an unpaid, non-student internship to be legal. But as Seaborn notes, “These six conditions are fairly vague and they’ve been interpreted by the Ontario Labour Relations Board and the result of that interpretation has been that every internship that has gone before this board, the person was an employee. They did not meet all six criteria of the test. It is next to impossible to meet all six criteria of that test unless it is part of a school program.”
Time For Dialogue?
As already noted, Sherman at Red Deer College firmly believes that the Canadian MI retailers, manufacturers, and distributors need to do a better job of working together with educational institutions to bring in young minds and fresh perspectives for the betterment of the industry in the long term. An obvious part of that process, he says, is creating well-developed internship programs. He even says that he and his colleagues at the college would be happy to facilitate a meeting of minds to formulate an action plan.
“I think what we really need to do is sit down with a task force with industry and say, ‘Let’s talk. How can we proactively work together in a way that is mutually beneficial for them as a business and for us as an educational institution? Because we keep on hearing that the schools aren’t training them for the industry, and I’m not talking about just music, and we’re saying, ‘Let’s talk and find out what you need from us,’” says Sherman. “We need to set a time and say, ‘This week, we’re all going to fly to one point and talk about how we can better the Canadian music industry and how academic institutions can help.”
Michael Raine is the Assistant Editor of Canadian Music Trade. He got this job after interning.