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."

Details

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By Neil deMause

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Will work for credits
By Patrick Arden

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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11 comments
David Yamada
David Yamada

There's a compelling case that most unpaid internships in the private sector run afoul of federal and state minimum wage laws. For those who would like to read a lengthier analysis, my law review article, "The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns," spells out the social, economic, and legal implications:http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/pa...

David YamadaProfessor of Law and Director, New Workplace InstituteSuffolk University Law School, BostonMinding the Workplace blog at:http://newworkplace.wordpress....

leokittay
leokittay

"In the end, she decided to abandon journalism and applied to law schools."

Talk about out of the frying pan, into the fire.

Yoni
Yoni

When will people wake up and see that unpaid internships are worse then sweatshops. Its not just exploiting the young and poor, its exploiting people with thousands of dollars of debt (and its often illegal).

I was once an unpaid intern. I made my boss thousands of dollars and had almost no supervision. So...

I started a law firm solely focused on ending illegal unpaid internships. www.InternLaw.com

Wake up interns!

This Wheel's on Fire
This Wheel's on Fire

Why is no one ever looking at the one of the world's most unregulated industries which is just ripe for the picking?The art world.Look no further than sites such as nyfa where jobs once formerly held by employees are now unpaid internships. All the art schools are lockstep and knee deep for years with this practice. Never mind the price of these art schools...

WW
WW

They're not just "working for free" they're PAYING for the privilege LOL! Students are PAYING for these "credits",

Wow, go work for nothing... how stupid. There must be quite a learning curve for students to overcome with this. Gheesh,

now think about this some more ... it's MORE corporate welfare!!!

STudents borrow low interest government money, or taking grant money from the government (*tax money) to "pay" for credits.

You just gotta laugh at the absurdity... Corporations are dipping in for all the freebies everywhere they can figure out a way to do so... and people are so gullible and naive they put up with such nonsense, and just go along, never question the status quo, never speak up or out about anything.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Hey Village Voice, do you pay YOUR interns?

Anonymous
Anonymous

They, in fact, do not. I know several current/former VV interns that are/were unpaid (and/or, required to intern for credit).

 
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