Thursday, April 02, 2015

Let's Talk About Interns

Lately I've been obsessed with the Simon and Schuster Internship Lawsuit. The whole thing really bums me out.

For those who don't know about these suits (S&S is the most recent in a long line), I'll attempt a very quick recap. For the past few years a number of media and entertainment companies have faced lawsuits for unfair labor practices for interns who were paid less than minimum wage. Basically, they worked for free and the work they were doing was not necessarily a learning experience, but work that should have been done by people hired at minimum wage. Work like filing, faxing, and photocopying.

Let me start by saying that I get the reason for these suits. It's important that we don't allow businesses and companies to use the term "intern" as a guise for free labor. The problem is what defines a learning experience and what did the interns get out of the job in the long run. I'm not entirely sure that's easy to answer, just like I don't think you can say that every college grad finished with a learning experience. Everyone might have finished with a diploma, but while some feel like they are prepared for the business world, others might feel they are really only prepared to tap the perfect keg.

I came out of a long line of internships and credit each with teaching me different things and helping me on my road to figuring out what it was I wanted to do and where I wanted to be. I don't remember ever being paid for an internship and I do know that the work I was doing was, in retrospect, free labor. But labor that added immensely to my resume and to giving me contacts that I still have to this day. Labor that also helped me develop a sense of what working in a professional environment required, how to make and maintain important connections and, yes, how to file.

In a perfect world every company hiring interns would pay them, but in a perfect world every company hiring interns would have the money to pay them. The truth is that if many smaller companies (and I'm not necessarily addressing those impacted by the suits) had the money to hire interns they would probably hire more staff instead, leaving students looking to amp up their resume for a summer out in the cold.

BookEnds has hired more than one of our former interns, we've helped others find jobs and proudly watched them build their own careers. We've stayed in touch with many. And, sadly, now we need to seriously reconsider our internship program. While we do think of it as a learning experience, and try to make it one, what we've learned the most is that some of our interns will do everything in their power to learn and others won't. It's as simple as that.

I've loved having interns and I loved being an intern, but lawsuits like this make me and many other small business owners skittish. Especially since its still unclear what defines a learning experience.



The Other Stephen King said...

In my day job as Academic Dean of a career college where internships rule the roost as far as most academic programs go, I feel the pain. Nearly all allied health program and most business and IT internships are unpaid, and over the years I've had several students approach me with concerns over doing "non-academic" stuff -- filing, coffee pot maintenance, sweeping -- instead of what they went to school for. My general response is to look at the other workers and watch what they do. If an intern is the only one making coffee or sweeping, ever, then that's wrong, but if the expectation is that they pick up some of the load, then my gentle and loving recommendation is that they stop whining and enjoy the true-to-life experience.


That said, we always have legal teams and long contracts covering these things.

Thanks for the post; I'll have to look into this one.


Krista said...

I was very sad about the lawsuit, too. I was an intern several times, and I had interns when I had an office.

I can honestly say that my internships introduced me to places and things I would never have known about otherwise. Did I do fascinating things? Of course not. But being there, hearing what was going on, and learning about something new was so valuable. It's the kind of experience that you cannot get from a classroom.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an interesting post about a relevant issue, one that raises mixed feelings for me.

I worked my fair share of minimum wage jobs, starting with McDonald's at 16, and can honestly say I learned something at each of them. So I get the idea that filing, running for coffee, taking messages, etc. can be a learning experience. I also understand many small companies can't afford to pay interns a working wage.

The problem is many students can ill afford to work for free, and yet there is often no other means to gain any experience in their field.

I wonder who would be doing that work if unpaid internships became illegal. My guess is funds would be pulled from other sources to cover the expense.

Why not do so now?

Please don't get me wrong. I don't buy into the idea that anyone is entitled to earn more than they're worth or jump in immediately into a position of responsibility. Responsibilities are earned by doing lesser jobs, and the sooner college students learn this, the better.

But not everyone can afford to work for free, especially when educational costs are skyrocketing.

It's a difficult situation.

Kate Douglas said...

As a published author, I can honestly say I did many years of unpaid internship while trying to sell my first book--the learning experience was invaluable, the contacts I made priceless, though not nearly as important as the friendships within my chosen field, because those authors I met along the way were my mentors in the business. But as kymlucas says, not everyone can afford to work for free, which gives the ones who can a "leg up" over the ones who can't. I know little about formal internships--are there scholarships available?

If an internship is an important part of learning a profession from the inside, and yet that training is only available to those who can afford the "cost" of participating, then there probably does need to be some change to the system, at least for the larger companies that can afford to absorb the added cost.

For smaller businesses where I imagine the intern is going to get more "one on one" contact with the profession in question, I think that requiring paid internships would have a detrimental impact on both potential interns and business alike, who would then be in the position of not being able to afford to have an intern on site. JMHO...

Unknown said...

Your post completely misses the biggest problem with unpaid internships: they're directly responsible for part of the lack of diversity in the publishing world. Only those who are wealthy or have wealthy parents can afford to work for free. This group lacks economic diversity by definition, and are more likely to be white than the population at large. If the best path into the publishing world is unpaid internships, the publishing world's appalling lack of diversity will continue indefinitely.

Elissa M said...

My college degree (BFA commercial art/illustration emphasis) required that I work an internship. I had to find the job as well as sign up and pay for the college credits. Fortunately for me, the job I found was a paying one, even though it was temporary and didn't lead to full time employment. At least I got my degree.

I agree with those who say non-paying internships favor those with the means to work without an income and that this system is inherently unfair.

I worked as an "apprentice trainer" on a horse farm many years ago. The pay was well below poverty level for 18-hour days, six days a week. But they did provide housing, the pay covered other necessities, and it was for a set period of time, after which "graduates" of the program used their excellent references to find training jobs on other farms.

It seems to me internships are an offshoot of the original master/apprentice system. Apprentices were never paid and were overworked, but they were fed and housed and learned their trade. Interns may also learn a trade, but they have no support while doing so and no guarantee of employment afterwards.

What would be fair to both businesses and interns? In my mind, paying a minimum wage is the only model that can work and be considered non-exploitative. But I also don't think "minimum" wage should be the same as a "living" wage--though that's just my opinion and not something I want to argue.

Colin Smith said...

I have to say, as I read your article, Jessica, my thoughts were along the same lines as Elissa's. These internships sound like what used to be called apprenticeships, where you would work with someone to learn their trade. In return, your basic life needs were met and at the end of your apprenticeship, you might work alongside your former mentor, or you might set up shop for yourself.

There clearly needs to be a balance to make sure the internship system doesn't favor those who can afford to work for free, while not unduly burdening the businesses for whom they intern. I'm not sure what the answer is (perhaps some kind of scholarship or sponsorship program?), but hopefully there's one out there.

AJ Blythe said...

I'm not sure if we have internships in Australia - I haven't come across them during my 20 years of working. Instead we have 'work experience' over summer periods which is usually paid. Or if there is no paid work experience you volunteer (another name for intern it would seem, but perhaps one that is much clearer in expectation).

I was in the 'volunteer' category as my chosen field was only relatively new when I studied it. I did many, many days of volunteer work and never regretted a day of it. Yes, some of the tasks were mundane, but I learnt so much from working alongside people with experience.

I've gone on to have a fabulous career and can directly trace those early jobs back to the fact I'd that volunteer experience on my resume.

I think people today expect too much. You can't succeed without working hard, and you can't start off with the big bucks. I worked hard during my years of study, went without much besides necessities working 2 jobs around uni timetables and saved my pennies to be able to volunteer on my holidays. No regrets!

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

As a teacher, my biggest complaint about student teaching - which is a great example of apprenticeship and also an equivalent of a business internship - is that not only was I not getting paid for a full-time job for a semester, but I had to pay for it (tuition - it's a credit-based thing at universities).

20 years ago, I remember that some degrees (such as pharmacy), had what they called internships and externships. Internships=paid, externships=not paid. However, externships were never expected to be full time whereas I think some non-paid internships are expected to be full time.

All that being said... I absolutely agree that one can learn and get a lot from internships (I'm a firm believer that most of the time, we get out only what we put in) and that since they are meant to be short-term, pay needn't be livable wage, but should be paid and should be at least minimum wage, especially if said intern is actually doing work and not "just" learning and if the internship requires 40 hour/week workload.

There are a lot of valid comments above me about socioeconomic status and the actual nature of the duties. I think, in the end, I can understand you feeling skittish, but also see it as an excellent excuse to revisit the contract (or create one) and explicitly define at least the minimums of what the learning experience is.

Aaron Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron Scott said...

I just wanted to point out that, in Canada, the practice of not paying interns isn't just viewed as unethical--it's outright illegal. People have a legal right to be paid for their work. It always blows my mind that in the US working for free is standard industry practice.