Service of Interns Part II

April 8th, 2010

Categories: Internships, Restaurant, Training


On this blog {January 25) we covered the subject of unpaid internships  in the “Service of Interns.”

On April 2, The New York Times ran an article, “The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not,” in which Steven Greenhouse wrote, “The Labor Department says it is cracking down on firms that fail to pay interns properly and expanding efforts to educate companies, colleges and students on the law regarding internships.”

intern2Five days later, [yesterday] a Wall Street Journal editorial addressed the competitor’s article in “War on Interns.”  Wrote the Journal editor: “The labor market is still in recession, but for younger workers it feels more like a depression. In the last year, the unemployment rate among workers age 20 to 24 has risen to almost 16%, and among teenagers to 26%.”

So putting young people “to work” and not paying them makes them employed? Even during the 20th century depression a vendor was paid for his apples.

intern3The editorial continues: “You might therefore expect a federal effort to encourage employers to give unskilled youngsters a chance. You would be wrong. The feds have instead decided to launch a campaign to crack down on unpaid internships that regulators claim violate minimum wage laws.”

I think that the Journal editor misses the point made in the subhead, “making it illegal to work for free.” Nobody wants to punish students who are willing to work for free.  Through the New York Women in Communications Foundation scholarship committee, I’ve met amazing student candidates who juggle college-fulltime–free internships and paid jobs. I worry that they won’t make it to their 25th birthdays.

It’s the employers who sell a student’s time/labor to their clients and customers and who give nothing to the student that I object to.

We were all beginners. The first time I babysat, I was paid-weren’t you?–as I was for my first summer job. The first magazine I worked for gave me a salary as did the first PR firm and another PR firm paid me while I became acquainted with a new industry.

What kind of uproar would there be if restaurants didn’t pay busboys or dishwashers?

The Wall Street Journal editor notes that the director of career services at New York University [NYU] refused to play ball with “famous banks” that wanted to offer students free internships. Banks famous or not–now come on! The editorial notes “…workers are willing to trade free labor for a chance to demonstrate their skills and build a resume for the next job.” [Italics are the Journal’s.]

I typed “define job” in Google and the first thing that came up was “occupation: the principal activity in your life that you do to earn money.” [I underlined to earn money.] In my opinion, if you aren’t being paid, you don’t have a job. In this context, there is no “next job.”

intern4If a company has enough business to support an intern, then it should have sufficient income to pay minimum wage.

The Journal concludes, “This isn’t exploiting young people. It’s letting young people exploit an opportunity.” The Journal didn’t mention this student Greenhouse wrote about in his New York Times article: “At Little Airplane, a Manhattan children’s film company, an NYU student who hoped to work in animation during her unpaid internship said she was instead assigned to the facilities department and ordered to wipe the door handles each day to minimize the spread of swine flu.”

Regardless: How will the model of encouraging people to work for free help the economy and generate real opportunities for anybody?


19 Responses to “Service of Interns Part II”

  1. Mervyn Kaufman Said:

    I think the idea of unpaid internships has been grossly overused by
    companies in need of extra hands without dipping deeper into their
    corporate pockets. For the interns, it may or may not be a good
    experience—or a favorable addition to their respective résumés. What
    it certainly is, is exploitation on a grand scale. Companies get
    go-fers and slave laborers who work long hours for little gratitude
    and absolutely NO promise of full-time employment at the end of their

    Yes, I see the value of the unpaid internship on two levels:

    1) it gives an employer the chance to test the aptness of the potential
    employee, and

    2) It gives the intern a chance to sample a job or an
    employer that he or she might decide is either a poor fit or the
    perfect fit. That said, however, my feeling is that any relationship
    lasting longer than a summer (let’s say 90 days) should be governed by
    the following:

    1. There should be a specified time limit at the time the internship begins.

    2. There should be frequent performance-reviews so the intern has a
    valid sense of how his or her contributions are being received. And
    if performance and satisfaction levels remain low, the intern as well
    as the employer are empowered to terminate the relationship. (Too
    often, after a full year of dedicated but unpaid service, interns are
    being told they’ve done lousy work—a complete surprise—thus are not
    employable on a permanent basis.)
    3. If asked to work a 16-hour day, which many interns face, there
    should be the possibility of car service home. No intern should have
    to face long subway or bus rides at midnight or later because of
    alleged job demands.
    4. No promise of possible full-time paid employment should be made
    without a clear understanding that such employment may actually be
    possible. This means that an employer cannot make a career of hiring
    one free intern after another to do scut work.
    5. Yes, scut work may be part of the job, but any recognized
    internship should include a solid, however loosely constructed,
    program of indoctrination and instruction.
    6. Unpaid internships should be licensed—by a municipality or by a
    county or state office. As far as I’m concerned, abuse and
    exploitation of recent college or grad-school graduates is as grievous
    as the seasonal hiring of illegal immigrants.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    The laws have no doubt changed since I was hired at my first PR firm 1,000 years ago. I was told that I was on probation for three months after which I could be let go at no obligation on the part of the agency to pay unemployment dues to the state.

    It was a good deal for all of us. They risked having a person with only a year as a junior editor at a magazine under her belt, [the magazine had folded], no PR experience and zero familiarity with the specialty for which they were hiring me. Meanwhile, they paid me. I was there four years and even though my next job was at a magazine, I’d fallen in love with public relations.

    However I think you are right to suggest that the employer of an unpaid intern should need to apply to do so and justify the reason the person isn’t paid and outline what the intern’s responsibilities will be and especially what they will learn. Making people do this will cut down on a lot of cheaters looking for free talent.

    As for No. 3 on your list, you touched a nerve. I was working for a PR agency where one of the assistants worked until midnight to complete a big project. I knew she lived in a dicey neighborhood and I asked her if she’d taken a taxi to get home and she said that she didn’t think there was money in the budget for that. I told her that she should never again risk her life and next time, take a cab. I will never forget the angry glare I got from one of the agency owners who overheard the conversation.

  3. Deirdre Said:

    Minimum wage is pretty low. Hire 2 interns part-time, pay them minimum wage, and teach them real skills.

    One thing to mention though: Some interns do get college credits for their work. If it works out that the students can skip a semester, or if they’re paying per credit, this can work out to be real money. In most cases, however, this doesn’t work out. Only well-off kids can work for free on a continuing basis, so the internship game has become totally unfair and undemocratic.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I know of instances where students at top-rated colleges get credit for raking leaves and typing manuscripts. I wince to think of the real cost in wasted time of such credits.

    I like your idea of hiring two interns so they have time to make money elsewhere. I mentioned minimum wage because $5.15/hour is better than $0.00.

  5. MMD Said:

    Interesting timing.

    The International Furnishing and Design Association Educational Foundation scholarship applications were due March 31st. I have been receiving them since mid march. Sadly this year we have received only one application for the Marketing Internships Scholarship and it was disqualified as the internship was completed last year and the student graduates this spring.

    Don’t know about student or employers’ thoughts about internships, but obviously every dollar helps these days so I am not sure why we did not receive scholarship applications in this category.

    As for interns not being paid, I think they should get a small stipend, if nothing else, to cover transportation money to and from the work place. Also I agree students should be given jobs that are truly learning and training positions, not glorified janitors or librarians.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I’d be curious to know whether scholarship opportunities for marketing students have increased and whether applications have decreased. Seems strange that you can’t give away money!

  7. Norm Brust Said:

    If you enforce the illegality of unpaid internships you doom many ambitious young people today to the lonely occupation of sitting home and tweeting. Anyone can reject the offer of an unpaid internship but nobody should be denied the option of choosing that arrangement.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    A reader, CC, sent this link to a great article, “For a Former Atlantic Intern, Payback is More Than Just Personal,” on Media Jobs Daily.

    Here’s the lead in the article by Katharine Rust: “The recent news of the Atlantic Media Company’s decision to not only pay their current interns, but retroactively pay those who interned in their first “academy” — a six-month, full-time, unpaid internship last fall — is not only fantastic on a personal level, but on a higher level, as well.”

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Thanks for entering the conversation.

    Rather than making unpaid internships illegal, there should at least be some restrictions on a company that abuses such a relationship.

  10. LH Said:

    I didn’t know there was so much of a debate surrounding internships stirring up – and I’m happy with NYU’s reaction about free internships.

    I guess one thing that I want to point out is often times internships are for college credit OR pay – and sometimes you need the college credit – but it should include both because you’re paying for the credits and your travel expenses to get to the internship etc etc.

    The way it is now, the whole situation stinks – the gov’t really should do more.

  11. Henry Grayson Said:

    I strongly believe in using the apprentice system to train one’s future workforce, and I also strongly believe that an excess of government interference in the business of business is counterproductive.

    In decades of working for a public company, I never saw one iota of profit come out of giving interns jobs, paid or unpaid. We did it for “pro bono” reasons, largely because everyone else did it. On the other hand, the staff we spent money on training served us well despite a high level of attrition.

    As a trustee emeritus of a 1,000 plus student school, I watched over 25 years our administrative staff grow three fold while our faculty remained constant in number. Modern education is bureaucracy run amuck, thanks to ever-expanding government mandated programs having nothing to do with basic education. A side effect of this is the vastly expanded emphasis on students having to have internships on their resumes.

    What we need are less college graduates, incapable of doing any real work well, and more skilled workers, well trained on the job to do complex work to produce products–not baloney. What we have got is the US Post Office and an array of college graduates who are skilled in jargon, not craft.

    But to answer your question: Only a fool running a business would pay an intern, if he could get one for free. On the other hand, if the intern is going to do real work, he ought to be paid for it.

  12. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I agree–that even if a student needs an internship to fulfill the requirements to graduate or for a class, the intern should be compensated at least for travel.

    I’ve worked with interns and to do a good job, the instruction involved takes you away from what you would normally be doing. While someone would have to provide the same instruction to a new employee, a company only gets an intern for a short period of time. However, a quick learner soon becomes value-added and today’s intern might become tomorrow’s staffer, without hours spent sifting through another stack of resumes and interviewing countless inappropriate nubies.

  13. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Depending on the specialty, I agree that there’s nothing like on-the-job training and experience and that advanced education, for some, is more a parking spot for the undecided than a valuable investment to their future.

    You mentioned jargon, which has always driven me nuts whether hip industry, corporate or graduate school-speak.

    However I think that internships serve a great purpose for the student who has no idea that they might be good at something they’ve never before tried. In addition, it gives students a reality check, that working in what they thought was a glamorous field may not really be attractive at all or is even better than they’d dreamed.

    I wonder who was selecting interns where you worked and where they got them from. Based on the students I’ve mentored at Baruch, I wager you’d not have had a disappointing or lackluster experience with any of them.

  14. DB Said:


    Has the business world confused the word volunteer with unpaid intern?

    The White House, Capital Hill, Smithsonian, etc. uses volunteers but interns must be paid in the US Government. Interesting since many a woman returning to the work force after child rearing has parlayed her volunteer work into a meaningful job.

    Even White House volunteers can land a paid position with persistence and dedication to their volunteer position and being in the right place at the right time.

  15. Ann L Said:

    I once worked for a company that took on interns each spring from Syracuse University. We were interviewed by the intern (not the other way around) and they let us know, based on what we told them we would have them doing, whether or not they wanted to join us. We paid for transporation and lunch.

    We hired a young woman who had been our intern after college to oversee marketing. Point being: everyone was on the same page….no promise of employment but lots of involvement in the day-to-day while the students were with us.

    It can be a worthwhile experience for a young person but they need to ask for a clear explanation ahead of time so as not to be stuck cleaning door knobs.

    I think the concept of internships is excellent. I feel, however, that unlike what we did, that interns should, in fact, be paid.

    Internships are usually for a very short period and would not “break the bank” of a company. I firmly believe anything we can do to help young people in this nasty marketplace the better. However, rules help: The intern needs to act in a responsible way as well as the employer….they should find out what is involved before taking on the internship.

  16. DB Said:

    NIH DOES HAVE SOME UNPAID INTERNSHIPS according to my husband.

  17. JBS Said:

    I think internships can be valuable, but they should be paid.

    Our son (who originally wanted to go into TV journalism) got an internship in high school at the local NBC station. He actually did get to write some copy and did lots more than carry coffee. But it was unpaid and when he had car trouble and came 10 minutes late they fired him (after about three years)! I could hardly believe that one. I know they counted on him, but it was still more than an hour before the newscast and that’s what he helped with.

  18. CF Said:

    It is definitely a very interesting debate and I understand both sides of it.

    All I can say is that I go into every internship knowing what it is and working as if I were getting paid anyway. I’ve been able to get fabulous contacts and that is just as valuable as a job offer 🙂

  19. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I know who you are and can assure anyone you work for that you will be a thoughtful, value-added person to any team within a few days at most. For the kind of intelligent service you provide as an intern, you should be paid.

    I wish that there were a meter to measure an intern’s value to a company and that this would determine minimum pay. A company could give more and there’d be no silly-sallying around.

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