Unpaid Interns Need to Shut the Hell Up

The system’s not unfair. Maybe you just suck.

Oh, look. The controversy of unpaid internships has come up again, with a federal judge ruling against Fox Searchlight in a case filed by unpaid interns who worked on the movie Black Swan. The Atlantic speculates that the “court ruling could end unpaid internships for good,” and Time has declared that it’s “the beginning of the end of unpaid internships.”

Some unpaid interns have been complaining about unpaid internships for as long as unpaid internships have existed. And as a former unpaid intern, I am here to tell you that they need to shut up.

I interned for Philadelphia magazine way back in 2002. I had recently left a job at Comcast, where I somehow got hired as a systems engineer, even though I had no idea what a systems engineer was or what I was supposed to do. I faked my way through it for about six months before they kicked me out the door, and I went on unemployment while I tried to figure out my life.

Journalism called out to me. The year before, even though I didn’t have any real writing experience or even a high school diploma (I dropped out of high school and then the University of Pennsylvania), I wound up writing this cover story for the Philadelphia Weekly.

I had happened upon some Philadelphia-related news in Haiti, of all places, where I was vacationing, and journalist Liz Spikol (now editor of Philly Mag’s Property) and I teamed up for the piece. The paper paid me $500, and Spikol and I won first place in the Keystone Press Awards for investigative reporting. Lynn Neary even interviewed me on NPR’s All Things Considered. Beginner’s luck, believe me.

With such a positive first experience in the journalism industry, and given that I had to do something productive with myself, I decided to take an unpaid internship at Philadelphia magazine. I fact-checked, I researched, and I wrote a few little items here and there. I probably made photocopies, sent faxes, and transcribed tapes, too. No one ever asked me to get coffee, but if they had, I certainly would have done it without griping.

Just as my unemployment was about to run out, meaning I had to give notice at the internship and get a real job, the magazine’s research editor announced she was leaving and recommended me to fill her place, which I did. A decade-plus and a few promotions later, I’m still here, supporting a family of four and having a blast while doing it.

I’m not the only success story to come out of a Philadelphia magazine unpaid internship. We usually have six interns per semester, and the better ones float to the top and wind up getting jobs when there are openings. Among the current editorial staff, the managing editor, assistant managing editor, editorial assistant, lifestyle editor, Philadelphia Wedding magazine editor, and assistant photo editor were all unpaid interns here. Now they get real paychecks.

Other former unpaid interns at the magazine who have gone on to do alright for themselves: Eliot Kaplan, who became editor-in-chief of the magazine and is now editorial director with Hearst Magazines; Max Potter, who was on staff at Philadelphia and GQ before taking the helm of Denver’s 5280 city magazine; Larry Platt, who edited Philadelphia and, most recently, the Daily News; Patrick Doyle, now executive editor at Boston magazine; and Lisa DePaulo, who went on to write for GQ, New York Magazine and Vanity Fair and who memorably profiled then-Mayor Ed Rendell in this 1994 story.

Of course, not everyone gets a job or winds up doing amazing things after an internship. In some cases, that’s just life. But in some cases–in many of them–it’s because the interns are incompetent, disengaged or unwilling to learn. Some of them don’t know how to act in a professional environment. On rare occasions, we’ve actually had to let interns go. You know you’ve screwed up royally if you’ve been asked to leave an unpaid internship.

An  internship can lead to great things, assuming that you’re smart, ambitious and, probably, a little bit lucky. (No doubt I’ve had my fair share of luck.) If I were one of those Black Swan interns, whose complaints included the fact that they had to assemble furniture and track purchase orders (the horror!), I would have finished that internship with a couple of key contacts who liked me (even if it was because I knew where to get the perfect latte) and, at the very least, the ability to throw an Oscar-winning movie onto my next resume.

But, no. These days, you ask an intern to put a chair together, and you wind up in Federal Court. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be laws in place to stop companies from exploiting young workers. There should be, and there are. Heck, thanks to current laws, the internship I did at the magazine 11 years ago would likely be illegal today.

But these interns aren’t children. They’re not indigent laborers in some Third World sweatshop. They’re adults, and many of them privileged ones at that. It’s not protection that they need. They need a kick in the butt, a taste of the real world. But most of all, they need connections. They need jobs. And abolishing the longstanding tradition of the unpaid internship as a foot in the door to those jobs isn’t going to help one bit.

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