Internships: The New Indentured Servants

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The following crappy letter defending unpaid internships was posted in the New York Times this week. Here is my response:

As a casting director and business owner, I have been privileged to know and work with several smart and talented interns, both unpaid and paid. Some of these colleagues have, deservedly, gone on to wonderful success.

As your article points out, economic conditions have been challenging, and jobs for new graduates are scarce. One can only empathize as they enter the job market.

Yet one undertakes an unpaid internship with the understanding that it is, in fact, unpaid; the myriad benefits of such an internship can be invaluable to one’s career. However enriching one’s college education has been, there is no substitute for witnessing, firsthand, how a business works.

Employers seek interns (and staff) who are bright, personable, motivated and curious and possess a strong work ethic. Unpaid interns, who often work only part time, agree to a trade-off: volunteering their time to learn and gain hands-on experience, and perhaps a future paid staff position, at a company in the field of their choice.

No task required to keep a business running — opening and sorting mail, filing, emptying out closets and so on — should be considered menial. I have often hauled trash bags into the hallway for collection, all the while joking about “the glamour of show business.” Any size company, be it in fashion, media or another arena, depends on elbow grease, small details and often “boring” tasks to keep it functional and thriving.

An unpaid internship in any field can greatly expand one’s knowledge, experience, contact base and chances of future career success.

ILENE STARGER
Brooklyn, May 14, 2012

The writer, a casting director for film, theater and television, has her own company, Ilene Starger Casting.

Ms. Starger states that no task required to keep a business running should be considered menial. That is precisely why what she is doing is illegal. According to the Department of Labor, interns are not allowed to displace regular employees. The reason interns complain about taking out the trash isn’t because it’s beneath them, but because it is work that should be done for wages.  An unpaid internship is to be for the benefit of the intern, and it is to mimic the training of an educational environment.

Interns already understand that “boring” tasks are necessary for a business to work. They are not in awe when they show up and don’t see piles of garbage strewn about the casting room – they don’t need an unpaid internship to teach them how trash works. An internship is to mimic the educational environment. One wonders how Ms. Starger would react if, realizing her almost certain employment law violations, she audited a legal class – only to find the course just consisted of getting the professor’s dry cleaning and stuffing envelopes.

This is labor exploitation. Whenever a sweatshop violates minimum wage law, everyone get rightfully upset because we as a society end up footing the bill for the negative externalities. The sweatshop makes super competitive profit, while the community foots the bill for employees not being paid a living wage.

We should all be against unpaid internships for the same reason. That they are solely for the benefit of the intern is laughable. A friend of mine ran the door at a comedy club as an unpaid internship. Another’s typical day involved returning rugs to Home Depot for the wife of a movie producer. Worst of all, one friend worked 12 hour days with a team of interns writing trivia questions for a phone app. They were paid only in pizza on days they were required to stay past seven.

Why don’t we get as upset at unpaid internships as other attempts to skirt minimum wage law? The answer is the biggest reason we need to crack down – it’s because interns come from affluent families.

Increasingly, internships are being looked at as a necessity for entry level white collar positions. How are those who cannot afford to work for free ever going to make it to Ms. Starger’s level when they must compete with those who can?  Increasingly, successful parents are placing their children into internships. When it comes time to interview for paid positions, those without their parent’s money and connections are at a huge disadvantage.

For a time I tried to work in entertainment – perhaps the biggest unpaid internship sinner. I graduated with honors from a top university and worked multiple jobs every summer, yet I was asked in several interviews for entry level positions why I hadn’t done an internship. I thought about just doing one, but realized that production companies routinely “hire” five to six interns a semester while only hiring about one paid employee every year. The writing on the wall is clear. Taking an internship is playing the lottery – best left to those who can do it on their parents’ dime.

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