Touted as a gateway to professional advancement, internships have long been a rite of passage for students and those seeking a career shift. That rite of passage has increased in prevalence and cost. It is estimated that more than one million students take on internships annually in the United States, with only about half as paid internships. From the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, the number of college graduates participating in an internship rose from under 10% to over 80%. Unfortunately, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that 63% of paid interns received at least one job offer in 2013, while their unpaid counterparts were offered jobs at a rate of only 37% – a number that closely reflects job acceptance rates for students without any type of internship.
During my first stint in New York City, I worked an unpaid internship. I was fresh out of college and eager to get my feet wet in the big world, even if that meant draining my savings account to pay rent and using a credit card to buy groceries. I believe firmly that this experience has opened many other doors and did provide me with valuable skills, but I am still paying for it in the same way that other interns who sacrifice time in the workforce must pay.
I was on the other side of the coin when I took over management of an internship program at a nonprofit organization. In my role, I was asked to do the seemingly impossible: find quality candidates who can intern full-time in NYC for free in accordance with Department of Labor regulations that state “the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.” Also, I had to make the program educational, similar to a training curriculum, and ensure that the “intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.” Every day, it troubled me to watch these smart, bright-eyed students denied what they deserved. They were so willing to learn and so deeply committed to the mission, but I figured at least one of them worried about money as I often did when I was in their shoes.
The debate about whether to pay interns remains a point of contention, even legislatively. No longer are interns obligingly fetching coffee, filing copies, and quietly waiting for their big break. Over the past few years, companies like NBCUniversal have paid out millions of dollars in class-action lawsuits to former interns who felt taken advantage of. Most recently, Condé Nast has paid out a $5.85 million class-action lawsuit to nearly 7,500 former unpaid or underpaid interns. These interns, some of whom worked at Vanity Fair, Vogue, and the New Yorker as far back as 2007, will each likely receive $700-$1,900. As a result, initiatives like Fair Pay Campaign and the Outten and Golden Unpaid Interns Lawsuit have emerged, lending a voice to formerly disempowered interns.
The aforementioned Department of Labor (DOL) regulations were spurred by a need to clarify points in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act and to establish clear guidelines after cases like Walling vs. Portland Terminal Company in 1947. In the Walling case, the Supreme Court ruled against one of the railway employees who wanted to be compensated for time spent at a training prior to starting work with the company. The court argued that Walling, as a trainee brakeman, should not be paid as the training was in direct benefit to him.
Fast forward from 1947 to 2013, after the introduction of the DOL regulations, and we have the “Black Swan” case. Here, a Manhattan judge ruled in favor of interns working on the film Black Swan under Fox Searchlight, stating that production interns should have received at least minimum wage. The judge pointed out that although the interns likely received benefit in the form of an enhanced resume and job references, all regular employees would also receive those benefits, thus this was not reason enough to withhold payment. The bottom line was that Fox Searchlight benefitted from the interns doing work that they would have otherwise had to pay someone to do.
So, should we pay our interns? Some critics argue that internships are “training wheels;” thus, the government should not regulate intern wages the same way they regulate traditional employment wages. I agree that businesses do not have to pay as much as Palantir Technologies, Twitter, or LinkedIn, all of which reportedly shell out over $6,000 each month per intern as a base salary. However, organizations in the public and private sector should meet interns in the middle. If not with pay, then with other benefits. This might mean limiting the hour requirement so that interns can seek part-time, paid employment concurrently, if needed. If nothing else, at the very minimum, every state should enact workplace protections for interns. Unfortunately, these protections have only been implemented in Oregon, Washington, DC, New York City, and New York State.
The interns of today will be the leaders of our businesses, nonprofits, and governments tomorrow. They should be treated as such.
Originally from Dillon, Montana, Tabatha Renz is a 2011 graduate of Boise State University and 2015 MPA Candidate at NYU Wagner. Her interests center on policies that affect veterans and military families. Tabatha is employed by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IAVA or any other entity.