A time of reckoning for unpaid internships | The Triangle

A time of reckoning for unpaid internships

No one likes being taken advantage of, but a certain class has been voicing its discontent more than ever lately. Since February 2012, when former Harper’s Bazaar intern Diana Wang sued Hearst Corp. seeking damages for unpaid labor, many large media companies have come under scrutiny for the legality of their internship programs or been sued by disgruntled interns. Now, just four months after they were sued by two former interns, Conde Nast — the major magazine publisher of titles like Vogue, Glamour and GQ — has completely dismantled its internship program.

These recent lawsuits have created a large debate around the function of unpaid interns. As defined by the U.S. Department of Labor, an unpaid internship with a for-profit employer must meet several requirements: It should include training similar to that “which would be given in an educational environment,” it must be for the benefit of the intern and provide no “immediate advantage” for the employer, and an intern must not displace regular employees. These standards also assert that an intern is not guaranteed a job upon completion of an internship and is not entitled to wages. Parties suing companies like Hearst and Conde Nast claim that they did work beyond that of an intern and therefore deserved to be paid at least minimum wage for their time.

Defenders of the current system prevalent among media companies, including former interns themselves, assert that interns can receive educational experiences if they seek them out and that those who seek wages after knowingly accepting an unpaid position are being disingenuous. Those in this camp often believe that the networking opportunities provided by internships like these are worth the work and provide the “foot in the door” that postgraduate job seekers need in an exclusive field.

Those opposed to the existence of unpaid interns believe that all work should be fairly compensated, citing many instances where interns performed only menial tasks, were unfairly put upon, were treated with disrespect, or were never provided anything resembling educational training.
From this angle, one could see the Conde Nast program cancellation as a win for overworked students attempting to stick a foot in the door of international media outlets each year. One could even think it would open up entry-level positions at each of Conde Nast’s magazines, allowing former unpaid interns to finally reap the rewards of their college summers or co-op programs. Unfortunately, this probably will not be the case.

If the across-the-board cancellation of intern or co-op programs meant an increase in jobs at a 1:1 ratio, the effects would inevitably be beneficial to all industries and the U.S. economy in general. Industry standards would be reset so that college graduates made a smooth transition into entry-level jobs instead of slogging through unpaid internships just to get their resume in the right hands years down the line.

Unfortunately, if other companies eliminate their internship programs like Conde Nast, this will most likely not be the outcome. As a historically precedent-setting company, Conde Nast has now set the stage for an already exclusive industry to shrink even further. It is not unimaginable that similar companies, namely Hearst Corp. or Time Inc., would soon get rid of their internship programs as well. If these outlets are not willing to pay their interns, even at a small scale, the chances are slim that they would hire a sufficient amount of employees to replace them. Additionally, many behemoth media companies already make internships an unofficial prerequisite to an entry-level position. More frequently, however, entry-level positions have been replaced with “freelance” positions, which in reality are temporary jobs that pay per diem with no benefits. This false “freelance” position has replaced the entry level at many media outlets.

The elimination of unpaid internships as the stepping stone into the entry level will only require employers to hire more of these temporary workers. This means that after graduation, those students who would formerly have had a few internships under their belt and been candidates for full-time entry level positions will instead be working for far less with no benefits. Whether students who accept an unpaid internship and expect something different are being unrealistic or whether multimillion-dollar companies should even be allowed to perpetrate this illegal activity is neither here nor there. What the possibility of major, name-droppable internships being canceled all over the country means for interns, including Drexel co-op students, is the main problem.

In short, not only will the elimination of these programs double the competition for media hopefuls for internship seasons to come, but it could do damage to upcoming classes of graduates entering an already unpredictable job market. While an end to exploitative internship practices is admirable, this change may not prove to be a win for the overworked. It is a loss for thousands of possible media employees who now may never get the chance to work for their favorite magazine or get a foot in the door and may dig themselves deeper into student loan debt after graduation while trying.