Why Pay Interns?

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A manager called me up one day, asking if he could hire an intern for his growing department.

How much are you looking to pay? I asked.

I don’t have room in my budget for pay. I was hoping it could be an unpaid internship.

What would the intern be doing? I asked.

Oh, filing, setting up appointments, working reception, making sure coffee is filled.

I asked a series of questions. Would the person be having any meaningful interactions with clients? Would they being doing any financial analysis? Will you be providing the person with any industry specific training?

The answer to all my questions was no.

Then you can’t have an unpaid intern. A summer employee who is paid under our current structure, that I can help you with.

The manager was incredulous. Other places do it, he said.

I gave my standard reply when someone tells me this. Other places are wrong.

The Thirteenth Amendment was passed in 1865. A century and a half later, slavery continues in the form of unpaid interns.

College students and recent graduates are hired by the tens of thousands every summer to work as interns. Some have meaningful assignments, but many are brought on to take care of the most mundane tasks: fetching lunches, delivering packages, filing, entering data. The Department of Labor has made it clear that unpaid internships need to be for the benefit of the intern, and not the employer. It must include work related to the inern’s future career and have some educational component. The concept is that if the student receives training and experience in lieu of pay. Many, like the manager I denied, either ignore these regulations, don’t understand them or don’t care. Until recently, employers are rarely called on this violation of the law.

Since a Federal judge in Manhattan ruled that unpaid interns working on the movie Black Swan were essentially employees and should have been paid, I’ve read and heard several commentators lament the end of internship programs. The reasoning is that these employers will determine that interns just aren’t worth the hassle of potential lawsuits, and that paying them some small wage will somehow send their multi-million dollar corporations reeling into bankruptcy.

Black Swan grossed over $300 million. I’m sure they could have afforded a couple of interns a nominal wage. The cost would have probably been less than their cattering budget.

Still, I agree that many of these companies will drop their internship programs in order to avoid lawsuits. They’ll have to find someone else to beratewhen the coffee pot is empty?

Unpaid internships have thrived because they are in industries considered glamorous – fashion, film, television, publishing. Students are clamoring to get their foot in the door in these industries, which has made it all to easy for the companies to say, “Work for us for free. We’ll treat you like dirt, give you all the crappy jobs. In the end, you’ll get connections and be able to put our name on your resume. The world will be your oyster.”

One concern is that the end of these unpaid internships will mean that these students and new grads won’t be able to make the connections they need to get paying jobs. However, according to a recent study of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, unpaid interns faired only slightly better in obtaining regular employment than those students who did not do internships.

Contrast this with paid internships. Paid internships tend to be in more technical, less glamorous industries, such as IT, engineering and accounting. The same study showed that these internships were much more likely to result in a regular job. I used to hire civil engineering interns. We used them throughout the construction season to supplement our survey crews, monitor construction projects and assist with traffic studies. Some of the work was menial, like holding a rod in the middle of a field for a Survey Crew Chief, or counting cars as they went through an intersection. Some of it was more substantial. All of it provided them real life work experience, and we used these interns (we actually called them Co-op positions, since we and the student both gained from the relationship) as a pool for hires after they graduated.

The difference between the companies like ours that pay interns, and the ones that don’t is that the ones that don’t think they are so cool that interns would actually pay them for the opportunity. We were an engineering firm. We knew we weren’t cool.

Those who exalt the merits of unpaid internships remind me of the apologists for slavery who say that the blacks were better off under slavery than after they were freed.

That’s debatable. Nevertheless, they were still slaves.

I’m not saying that interns are the same as the black slaves two hundred years ago. After all, they have a choice. They weren’t kidnapped and chained in the hulls of cargo ships and bought and sold and traded. They can always leave, and if they do, no one is going to hunt them down like dogs as they try to escape to freedom across the Mason-Dixon Line.

Still, just as slavery is wrong, regardless of the circumstances, not compensating your workers is wrong. It needs to change. Either these employers need to create a truly educational internship program, start paying interns or end their programs all together.

Will this mean a change for both interns and the employers who enlist them? Of course. But the marketplace will adapt. It may even turn out to be advantageous for some students. After all, only those interns who have some other means of support (i.e. well-off parents) can afford to work without pay. Those students who already have bills to pay and a mountain of student debt don’t have the option of working for free, no matter what opportunity it provides.

In 2012, the movie Lincoln chronicled the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

I wonder if in making the film, they used any unpaid interns.

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