Internships: A Personal View
Call it the 'Revenge of the Interns.' Since two interns won a case against Fox Searchlight last month, more and more interns are coming out of the woodwork to sue their employers for unfair labor practices. While some say these court cases could end unpaid internships, WUSF's Jean Henry finds that others don't mind paying their dues.
You're an undergrad nearing graduation with tons of coursework under your belt but no practical experience. Rather than rolling the dice and trying to get a job after graduation based on a degree alone, you offer your services to a company within your desired field. In most cases, half actually, you won't be paid. If your lucky you might get academic credit from your college.
Credit or no credit, to the companies employing these interns, its free labor--And the U.S. government isn't big on free labor, so they make these companies follow the Fair Labor Standards Act. Its a sort of guide employers can use to make sure they aren't exploiting these eager undergrads. There are six guidelines regarding unpaid interns, but only three you should really know about.
Number one: The internship has to be educational.
Number two: The intern can't replace a regular employee.
And number three: The employer can have no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.
Which brings us to the Black Swan interns.
"Two interns from the movie Black Swan are suing Fox Searchlight the production company saying they were asked to go beyong that and do things they just weren't supposed to do..."
According to a Manhattan judge, Fox Searchlight Productions violated violated all three of these guidelines.
Dr. Robert Shindell is Vice President of InternBridge. Its a a research and consulting firm that helps companies improve their internship programs. He says there is only one, sure-fire way to employ interns without breaking the law: pay minimum wage.
"All for profit employers have the ability to pay their interns," he says, "because they are benefiting from the work that the intern is doing, regardless of whether they're learning or not. So unless the only thing they want that student to do is come to their office and sit in a corner and not touch a bit of work and just watch somebody work, than that's fine. They don't have to be paid because they aren't doing any work. But if a company is benefiting from that students time, they need to be paid."
But how feasible is this concept to an industry that is struggling to adapt to the age of information?
What's most interesting about the Fox Searchlight case is that it was followed by so many like it in such a short period of time. Now former interns from fellow media companies like Conde Nast, NBC Universal, and Gawker are following suit.
Rachel Kaylor is my old college classmate. She's done some internships and now she's marketing director for a law firm in Tampa.She says as journalism major, unpaid internships are pretty much the only way to gain experience.
" I think they served a purpose. I wouldn't have gotten experience otherwise. I don't know of many news organizations, especially with how competitive the market is, that would hire someone without experience. We're facing extreme competition in the media field today because there are so many of us and so few jobs. Jobs are disappearing faster than they are appearing and any experience you can get, whether your getting paid in coffee or money, I think is valuable."
To people like University of South Florida graduate Erica Glynn, internships were vital to her success. But she doubts her former employers followed Fair Labor Standards to the letter.
"I think part of being an intern is to do things that paid employees do," she says. "Did I necessarily do things that a paid employee would do? Of course, but they weren't to the extent of what a paid employee would do."
At this point, I should mention, that I, too, am an unpaid intern. And like Erica, who has since been hired by a New York advertising firm, I want to do the job, not just learn about it.
I can't help but think that I'm just paying my dues.
I always thought interns were kind of like squires, back during the medieval times . You follow a knight from town to town carrying his armor and polishing his weapons, all in the hope that one day you'll be the one swinging the sword; getting the glory.
But is it possible that the Fair Labor Standards Act is to blame? After all, how beneficial can an internship be unless you get to do the job? Maybe it should focus on making it easier for interns to report those that require long hours and menial tasks, like those given to the Black Swan interns.
There should be a more of a give-and-take relationship between employers and interns. Here at WUSF, I get to set my own schedule, usually under 15 hours a week, and am mentored by people who have been doing what I want to do for at least a decade.
You see, my generation, we expect obstacles. We're the jaded byproduct of an era economic turmoil and an American Dream that appears to be inherently tied to debt. We don't expect anything to be easy. But throwing out an archaic law sounds like a good first step.