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Summary:

Another day, another exploited intern. This time, it’s the New York Times raising awareness about the legions of unpaid young people who work their hearts out in media or fashion and get shafted in return.

Oliver Twist
photo: Corbis / Guy Ferrandis / Tristar Pictures

Another day, another exploited intern. This time, it’s the New York Times raising awareness about the legions of unpaid young people who work their hearts out in media or fashion and get shafted in return.

The tales of woe described in the Times echo those described in the book Intern Nation and in a recent lawsuit filed by a Harpers Bazaar intern.

The problem here is obvious: employers are using a dreadful job market to take advantage of young people desperate for an opportunity. But what’s the solution?

“Sue the bastards” is not a practical option in most cases given the costs of a lawsuit and interns’ fear of harming their future careers. A law requiring employers to pay interns is unlikely to work either; many offices would respond by deciding to eliminate interns altogether.

A better answer might be a bill of rights for interns in which employers agreed to uphold the basic quid pro quo of an internship: free work in exchange for mentorship and experience.

For many young people, the biggest tragedy of the intern economy is not the lack of wages (though this a drag) or being asked to make coffee (which never killed anyone). Instead, it is employers who fail to provide dignity or any useful work experience.

It’s time for companies to adopt a standard best practices document in which they pledge, in the absence of wages or a guaranteed job, to provide interns with real work, contacts and mentoring.

So far, no one has stepped forward to do so. School career offices, which should stand up for their students, have so far ducked the issue. Those contacted for this story said it was an issue between students and employers.

In their absence, perhaps the New York Times could take the lead and suggest a model “intern contract” setting out what employers should pledge in return for the free work so many of them are now taking. (The Times may also want to get its own house in order — my own experience there in 2010 was similar to those described in its recent story).

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  1. David Thomas Tuesday, May 8, 2012

    There was a follow up article in the NYTimes featuring the ideas of a lawyer who specializes in advising firms on the use of interns. A key comment was that paying an intern minimum wage should not be a burden to the firm — many internships hover around 20 hours per week. http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/07/the-uses-and-misuses-of-unpaid-internships/

  2. I don’t currently use interns, but this idea stinks. Internships are for the purpose of getting experience, and building a resume, not compensation. If you make it a p.i.t.a. to hire interns, the number of internships will plummet. Students will thank you. Not.

  3. Mark Herman Simon Wednesday, May 9, 2012

    The problem I see with interns in media is we get two consistent patterns. One, we view them as free labor and for the most part they do very little real work and many do not take the time to train them. Stewardship is dead. Two, we get the rich kids. Who can afford to chase an unpaid internship?

  4. Although different, many legal internships are also unpaid. Generally, one does sign a contract with one’s supervising attorney stipulating the exchange of services for a learning experience, education, school credit, etc. Maybe the fashion and media industries could benefit from this model. That being said, I have found in my personal experience that employers define the term “education” very loosely, and the interns leave without having gained any knowledge or experience. However, I believe it’s on the intern to know when they are being misued and to leave that situation.

    Mark has a good point about stewardship, but as far as rich kids being the only unpaid interns, I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Maybe law is different, but everyone I knew did unpaid internships while living off their small student loan budgets. After graduation, I worked at a firm where all of the interns (6) had other paid part-time or full-time positions to pay the bills and did the internship on the side because it was the area of law they wanted to practice in.

  5. Media contributor Thursday, May 10, 2012

    I disagree with this idea. Interns and freelance contributors should be paid fairly for their work and be allowed to buy into insurance plans. Otherwise, interns and freelancers will continue to be exploited–even if their employers are offering mentorship and practical training.

    1. My former employer, a public college in New York, specializes in placing its enrolled students in unpaid internships. The college grants academic credit to students who work for free on projects and at internships. Those organizations (public and private) no longer pay staffers or contractors for the work performed by interns: they simply get new student interns each semester.

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