For 26 years, Pace University's M.S. in publishing has required one-semester internships from students lacking work experience, followed by a second-semester thesis. "If somebody is working in the children's book division at HarperCollins, they might write a paper about what's currently happening in e-book apps for children's books," says the program's internship director, Jane Kinney-Denning. "What's happening at HarperCollins could be a part of it, but they would look at other publishers as well."

The work experience is now expected by employers, agrees Kinney-Denning, leading some of her students to accept multiple internships without credit simply to build up their résumés. "It's incredibly valuable," she says. "In today's competitive marketplace, you need a résumé that shows some experience already in the industry to even get an interview for an entry-level position."

Internships have become the new entry-level jobs. "It's a requirement to get in the door," Gardner says. "The entry-level job has shifted back to college, and the jobs that many students are getting right out of college are no longer typical starting jobs. They require experience and have higher expectations on skills and abilities." In the economic downturn, companies might not be hiring, but they've turned to internship programs to prepare for "the huge baby-boomer retirements coming," he says. "We've got plenty of kids who have internships that still can't find jobs."

"The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern."
Courtesy MGM Studios
"The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern."

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Many academic programs that require internships claim that paying jobs would taint the students' learning experience, but "there is no research that shows a paid situation undermines the learning that goes on," Gardner says. "I would like to minimize to none the amount of unpaid internships—just get rid of the bad ones."

Unfortunately this is easier said than done. High-income students might still enjoy the status and contacts that come with internships in the arts and entertainment, but lower-income kids who want to go into the unglamorous worlds of teaching, health, and the social services would be stuck, as those disciplines lack the money to offer paid internships. "Without thinking about it, you're going to hurt a lot of people unless you've got plans to replace those opportunities," Gardner says. "Some people think that if they get rid of unpaid internships, something miraculous will happen. That's not going to happen. Organizations will just withdraw."

Some programs do resist offering unpaid internships. "Business and engineering just don't support it," says Gardner. "In engineering, you've got less than 15 percent of students in unpaid internships; in business, it's about 30 percent. But anything in arts, entertainment, publishing, broadcasting, they're notorious for unpaid slave labor—this is how you get in. To break that up, it's going to be difficult."

Here Come the Lawsuits

Breaking that up is just what attorney Wagoner has in mind. Her law firm, Outten and Golden, has filed a federal lawsuit in Manhattan against Fox Searchlight Pictures over the use of unpaid interns. The plaintiffs, who worked for free on the hit film Black Swan, were not even in school at the time. Other studios may pay their interns or require school credit. "But even if someone is getting school credit, employers are not necessarily exempt from overtime or minimum-wage laws," Wagoner says. "It has to be a training program."

One of the plaintiffs, Alex Footman, says he had to rely on family members to meet his expenses in New York while he worked on the film, and all his duties turned out to be menial. "I filed receipts, made coffee, took people's lunch orders, built furniture in the office, and ran lots of errands," says 24-year-old Footman. "I wasn't unhappy because I was doing that. I was unhappy because I was only doing that. I've had good internships where I wasn't being paid, but I was also getting an education."

Footman says all the unpaid interns on Black Swan worked for more than eight hours a day and performed the same work as paid production assistants. "They had one unpaid intern driving Mila Kunis around for weeks, until they switched it over to a Teamster." (Fox Searchlight did not return Voice calls for comment.)

Wagoner says schools should be wary of providing fig leaves for unpaid labor. "It undercuts the labor market. When Fox is able to get workers and pay them nothing, they're going to do that." Black Swan grossed more than $300 million, she notes. "They have plenty of money to create a minimum-wage, entry-level job."

Soon after his lawsuit got press attention, Footman recalls, he started to get "snarky" e-mails: "Stuff like, 'Congratulations, you guys just got blackballed in the industry.'" But he's not worried about his future. "I'm still working in film and video. Plenty of people think I'm doing the right thing."

Such reactions are typical, explains Wagoner, and pose the greatest challenge to ending the exploitation of unpaid interns. "We'd like to see this practice end, but I think a few more people will have to come forward and say: 'You know what? I was owed money for that work.'"

Perlin thinks a groundswell is building around the Black Swan lawsuit and other high-profile investigations by the U.S. Department of Labor, which recently forced an Atlanta public-relations firm to pay its interns after discovering the company had billed clients for their work. "There are signs of a real discussion happening," he says, noting that a few schools have stopped posting unpaid internships. "But I'm not expecting wholesale changes in policies at any time soon."

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