“Unpaid” Internship? I Don’t Think So! Internships are priceless

How many graduate students started their career with one or several internship(s)? One might assume that studying 4 years after high school (sometimes more) puts you on the starting blocks for entering the job market armed with the knowledge to start high and climb higher. But has school completely prepared you for your first job in the industry of your dreams?

I started my career with 3 internships. The first one was unpaid (although I did such a good job that the company decided to give me a generous stipend at the end of my internship, something they had never done before), the other two included a small monthly stipend (not enough to live on). These internships immensely increased my knowledge of the industry I was trying to work in. They taught me about the different paths I could take in this industry. They enabled me to experiment with each path and to choose one.

About 15 years later, armed with my different experiences and the knowledge I gained over the years, I wish to change paths and career. I expect to be able to do so thanks to an unpaid internship. Although I have what it takes to enter the field I am trying to enter, I do not have experience. On the job market, I am facing people who have dedicated their past experience to this new field I am trying to enter. An internship can give me the occasion to prove my worth, pay my dues and start building experience in this new field.

Such opportunities in any industry are being threatened though.

Condé Nast, the media company that owns publications such as GQ, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, or Wired, has recently decided to stop its internship program:

Magazine publisher Condé Nast, fighting allegations by former interns that they were paid less than $1 an hour for tasks such as proofreading articles and organizing jewelry, is ending its internship program, a company spokeswoman said Wednesday.

This comes after a number of former interns decided to sue the company they interned in. They retrospectively demand the minimum wage for the internships they completed.

Should internships be paid? Why would students “work for free”? Aren’t interns receiving anything in exchange for completing the tasks they are assigned to during their internship? Are interns supposed to work during an internship?

My 4 years of university studying business administration and marketing had not prepared me to work in a company. Of course, I had many of the theoretical bases necessary to understand how the real world worked but I had yet to be faced with reality.

Textbooks may teach you how to treat customers in order not to lose them. Do they tell you what to do when your best client becomes hysterical on the phone because the thousand-dollars order he needs today and has ordered one month ago has still not arrived and the delivery company cannot locate the order? What do you do? Is apologizing enough? Do you deliver the order yourself? What if the client is on the other side of the planet? Of course you may have ideas on how to deal with this. But after a couple of cases of the kind, you will know exactly how to tract orders in advance to make sure they reach their destination in time, and no client is left unsatisfied. You will have faced the problems first hand. You will have learned how to deal with them.

Internships enable you to learn the inner workings of the job you’d like to do, with the benefit of the supervision and advice of someone, an employee, who has faced the problems before and is paid to prevent them from happening. No textbook will teach you experience. Working will give you experience. Experience will enable you to apply and complete what you have learned in school.

With an entry-level job, you are responsible of the tasks you are paid to do; with an internship, you can experience the tasks and perfect your knowledge. Interns are not supposed to know exactly how to do a job. They’re supposed to have the knowledge to understand how to do it and to be able to do it once someone has showed them how to perform the task.

What about knowing what you want to do? When I was a student, I knew (or so I thought) that I wanted to work in the music business. My university training did not prepare me at all to work in the music business. I read several books to learn everything I could on how the business worked. Although I had preferences, how could I know whether I would rather work in a radio, in a record company, or in an artist management company? All options had their interesting parts. I interned 6 months in a radio station and 9 months in a record company, with different labels and positions. That is how I found out. I could not have “tried” different paths with entry-level jobs. I could with internships.

Interning is a way of entering an industry, having the opportunity to prove your worth, get recommendations, network with people working in the industry, get advice from their experience… it is the first step to opening the door to an industry that can be very competitive, and in which your resume will compete with thousands of others (including some with a huge experience).

In the case of Condé Nast, would-be or former interns have expressed their concerns about the future of an ambitious student willing to work in the fashion business without the perspective of getting an internship. Some have also shared the benefits they received from such internships (check here, here, here, or here). Internships, in some industries, are like the golden key to a closed door: if you perform well during the internship, the doors open.

In addition, you earn a salary when you can do the job you have been hired to do. Interns are paid in intangible (not money) value because they present the risk of not being able to do the job: like some interns so often remind everyone, they are here to learn, not to work. Now can you learn to do a job without doing it? And if you can already do a job, do you need to learn to do it?

Far from being “unpaid,” so-called “unpaid” internships are rewarding interns with values that can prove to be much more valuable than a minimum-wage. You can get the minimum wage by selling clothes are your local H&M, but will it help you be the editor of a world-renowned fashion magazine? You will need to learn what the tasks of an editor are, and practice performing them.

Is it “all gain no pain” for the company and “a way to cut costs”?

The reality is a bit different. The company that welcomes interns invest time and money into them. Depending on the interns (and I have one in mind from when I was myself interning), this can cost them more than they get back. (And yes, I do think the company should get something in return for offering an internship to a student, but this should be the subject of another post.)

Interns will get the attention that few regular employees will ever get. They will benefit from close supervision in order to learn how to work. This means employees will take time to show them how their business work, they will answer questions, rectify errors and explain the problem to interns. These employees will play the role of a teacher in the company. It also means precious hours during which these employees cannot perform their job because they are training interns. Many internships are also part-time, which is not ideal for a follow-up of tasks in a company, but most companies understand that a student will either need to attend classes or find a paying, part-time job on the side.

Indeed, a company gives a lot in return for an intern completing some tasks. Some interns may not get money in exchange for their work, but they get experience, time, recommendations, and networking opportunities. Isn’t it what a contract should be about, exchanging value for value?

Of course, there will be internships that will be disappointing: some interns may have to perform tasks that may have nothing to do with their training and what they aspire to do in the future. But no one is bound to an internship. I had friends who stopped internships because they realized they didn’t get the value they expected from them. They did not want to do less, they wanted to do more of the task a regular employee was doing.

An internship is a contract that is signed freely between an employer and an intern because both sides think that they are going to benefit from the contract. Would you enter a contract in which you might lose money and are certain not to get any benefit? Students against unpaid internships would not, visibly. Neither would I. So why is the law expecting a company to get no benefit from an intern?

Forcing companies to pay interns the minimum wage when they perform tasks will not help inexperienced professionals. It will very naturally encourage employers to seek more experienced people for paid positions. It will destroy the position of intern. It will ruin the opportunities currently available to ambitious, knowledgeable but inexperienced students (for those who just graduated) or professionals (for those trying to change career paths). “Unpaid” internships are invaluable to these people.

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