The Unpaid Internship Era Is Finally Coming to an End

And rightfully so—it's an exploitative, outdated system that does nothing but burden both employer and intern alike.

If you were to come into the Philly Mag offices today, you’d find that the editorial side of things is lousy with interns. They sit by the art department, clustered together like workhorses in a stable, cranking out the fact-checking of endless lists. Virtually the entire day, depending on the magazine content that month, you can hear our intrepid interns clacking away at their keyboards and phone pads, pressing some poor schlub we interviewed about whether their name is, indeed, spelled that way or some other.

As is common across the media and entertainment industries, these wide-eyed young kids—each one hopeful for a future employment opportunity—will be paid in experience. Which, apparently, is just as good as money—that is, until you try to pay your rent that month with the things you learned while fact-checking. The exchange rates don’t quite match up to the landlord. (Believe me, I’ve tried.)

Fortunately, though, this modern-day indentured servitude looks like it’s drawing to a close. And as someone with three unpaid internships under his belt (and one paid), the end can’t come fast enough. 

Federal District Court judge William H. Pauley III ruled Tuesday that Fox Searchlight violated state and federal employment laws when they didn’t compensate two interns working on the set of Black Swan back in 2009. The case sets a legal precedent against the standard operating procedure we’ve seen for internships over the past decade, and could lead to its well-deserved downfall.

Evidently, Fox Searchlight paid a little too little attention to the “educational environment” that internships are required to foster, treating their lowly interns like (what else?) regular employees. Alexander Footman and Eric Glatt, Fox’s production interns, said in a suit that they were expected to perform paid employee duties like making travel plans, taking lunch orders and answering phones, among other assignments. Apparently, delivering an executive his McDouble is not a learning experience, aside from learning how the dude likes his sandwiches.

According to author Ross Perlin, there are around 1.5 million internships presented every year in the U.S. alone, and roughly half of those are unpaid. And of the half that are unpaid, I’m willing to bet that very few of them adhere to the criteria that allow employers to have unpaid internships:

  • Similar work to what an intern would see in a vocational program.
  • The intern benefits from their internship.
  • The intern doesn’t take over an employee’s duties.
  • The employer doesn’t get an immediate benefit from the intern’s toil.
  • No job is guaranteed for the intern at the program’s conclusion.
  • There is no expectation of wages on the intern’s part.

Unfortunately, the last two are pretty much guaranteed compared to the first four, and that’s across almost any industry you’d like to name. So, in that sense, many unpaid interns are employed illegally, a sentiment echoed by Maurice Pianko, founder of Intern Justice, in a recent Columbus Dispatch article.

On a personal level, I concur. None of my unpaid internships adhered to the first four rules above, and what’s worse, my single paid internship at Temple University’s College of Education often required less actual work than my internships at various online news sites and the like. And, perhaps even worse, my story probably is not all that special.

Millennials are all too familiar with the unpaid internship: The requirement for one is drilled into our heads from the first day of college. We’re told that in order to be paid for what you love, you’ve gotta do it pro bono for a while—which, hey, that’s fine because everyone does it. Of course we can’t expect to be paid! We’re unskilled, shiftless twentysomethings without anything to offer the world (if you believe the national narrative, that is). That culture creates a class of over-worked, stressed-out, mid-level-achievers that can’t understand their missteps once a job offer fails to materialize—bad economy or not.

Employers, of course, push the issue, too, with a 2012 survey from Millennial Branding showing 91 percent of those surveyed saying that students should have at least one or two internships before graduating. But at what cost? Of the 20 million Americans entering college each year, a vast majority will need to incur huge amounts of debt to do so. Then, on top of that, they have to get internships that require transportation costs and other spending (lunch and so on), so that by the end of the day, these kids are digging the hole even deeper than they anticipated to make it to baseline. And for what? So some company that isn’t even going to employ them can hit a better bottom line without shilling out more cash to workers.

I did the same, and luckily I had parents who could support me through my intern follies. But the same can’t be said even for the majority of college attendees, let alone the ones that attend school for a field that they’ll almost certainly need previous work experience to enter. At that point, this is almost sheer exploitation of an energetic, passionate group of people who don’t yet know how the professional world works on a social level.

What’s worse, unpaid internships could be considered detrimental to both employer and employee in comparison to their paid counterparts. According to the Huffington Post, InternMatch sees paid internship positions receive up to two-and-a-half times as many applicants as their unpaid listings, which consequently means a larger, more diverse, and more robust pool of talent that necessarily results in higher quality hires for the company. You might even get some non-white applicants to help alleviate the newsroom whitewash we at Philly Mag are so familiar with. Some of those kids might even be good enough to move on to full-time employment, with 2012 grads who had paid internships reporting job offers to the tune of 60 percent. That’s nearly double the 37 percent rate for unpaid internships in the same class (that’s only slightly better than the kids with no internships at all).

Clearly, the era in which unpaid internships result in jobs—the one in which my colleague Victor Fiorillo garnered his first job at Philly Mag some 11 years ago—is either a living myth or has largely passed us by. Free labor with no strings attached is much easier to deal with, but we shouldn’t expect the up-and-coming to continue to build their houses out of mud simply because the older journalists among us did so during their rise.

But as today’s interns push back against the free labor machine that they’re unceremoniously tossed into once they hit college age—see the Hearst Corporation intern case, or the Charlie Rose Show debacle—the tide is beginning to change. Which is great news for the interns of tomorrow—just don’t forget to go for that back pay, guys.