The Bane of the Unpaid Internship- Free Week

An Editorial

By Melissa Gerson

An internship is a must if you hope to get a job when you graduate. That was at least the consensus among my college professors and intern recruiters. Even dictionary.com emphasizes how promising supervised and practical training is in the modern world. So with all of these credible sources, internships should have been the greatest part of my college career … or so I thought at the time.

I’m a recent college graduate who had the opportunity to intern with four — yes that’s right, I said four — different news and media organizations. In the world of modern interning, I became a professional at it. Like many of my fellow college students, I arrived at my internships with high hopes that this was the way to get my foot in the door of my industry. When my junior year came around, I had a chance to experience a nationally televised newsroom. I couldn’t have been more excited after being told what this would do for my educational and networking experience.

Also like too many of my fellow college students, I grew greatly disappointed with these internships over time. I worked a copy machine more than I held a camera. I wrote thank you e-mails instead of news articles. I dedicated my time to sweat, tears, and free labor instead of growing as a reporter. Most companies operate on a three-semester system that each equate to roughly 200 hours of experience in about three months. However, when an intern is tasked with the menial “coffee run” 50 percent of the time, how exactly do they gain career experience or an education in the field? By the end of my major network internships, I wondered whether I was training to be a secretary or a journalist.

And at least free labor and menial tasks would at least score me a job with the company right? After all, isn’t that the real “pay off?”

Photo by Glen P.

While I thought at the time that photocopies and coffee runs meant I had it tough, the worst of my experience can not even compare to other internship horror stories. The dark side of one such internship at a Manhattan children’s film company was revealed in a 2010 New York Times story about an N.Y.U. intern who, in the midst of the swine flu break out, was given the task of cleaning their studio so the cast and crew would not contract the disease. Instead of landing a job from the internship, she landed an illness.

Mistreatment of unpaid interns in the film industry has recently caught the media’s eye: two interns who worked on the set of the movie Black Swan brought Fox Searchlight Pictures to court for working 50 to 70 hours a week on set without pay. Despite the film grossing millions of dollars, the interns never received any kind of well-deserved compensation.

What’s even more ironic is the current state of entertainment industry. Despite the economy’s lackluster recovery, American media of all kinds continue to thrive. Not to mention that most news stations have huge corporate parent companies (Viacom, Comcast, Disney, Time Warner, etc.) supplying its employees with substantive salaries and benefits. Even for those who rely on their interns as a free labor force, why do they so rarely receive any financial compensation? In the world of corporate media, there is no justification or reasoning for why interns should be treated so poorly.

Unsurprisingly enough, the government only has a non-binding array of ethical guidelines for hiring interns. As of 2010, the Labor Department created a new rulebook with conditions ranging from regulating hours to the necessary supervision that an unpaid internship should require. But unfortunately, without hard laws on the books there’s no authority keeping supervisors and companies from doing whatever they want with their interns. To make internships in any way beneficial for students, we must step up and demand the powers that be to turn free labor into supervised work. After all, I hear that unions are all the rage nowadays.

Recently, The National Association of Colleges and Employers released a study showing that 60% of 2012 graduates who worked a paid internship got at least one job offer, while just 37% of those unpaid got any offers. Statistics also reveal that 36% of graduates, who had no internship experience whatsoever, were offered jobs in their field. I am part of the 63% who did not receive a job offer.

So after all the blood, sweat, and tears, what exactly did I gain from my internships? While my resume had a few fancy new bullet points under my work experience, my actual experience was quite bleak. I went into each internship looking for a once in a lifetime opportunity with one of my favorite stations and left even more disappointed with the news industry. So, sorry to say to my professors and dictionary.com, it seems your hopeful mantra wasn’t enough for me to break into my industry.

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