Unpaid Internships: A Necessary Evil

Here, I’ll discuss the usefulness of unpaid internships in relation to a recent ruling concerning two interns who worked on the film Black Swan.

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 10.58.51 AMHere’s a little known fact about unpaid internships: a lot of times, they kinda suck. I know, I know! It probably comes as a HUGE surprise to you that being lowest person on the totem pole and doing menial and often monotonous work in exchange for something as abstract as ‘experience’ would be anything less than amazing, but very often, it is. And if you have a choice between getting an unpaid internship or a paid job in your field, that’s an easy choice: take the money and run.

The truth of the matter, however, is you’re not often presented with those two options. If you’re fresh out of college without any real-world work experience, unpaid internships are often your only way of showing potential employers that you understand complex workplace concepts like showing up on time and smelling okay.

But unpaid internships, already difficult to land in this job market, might get even harder to get now that a judge has ruled in favor of two interns working on the film Black Swan, saying that they essentially served as normal employees and should’ve been paid.

What were they doing, you wonder? Maybe choreographing a few dance scenes? Giving Natalie Portman some coaching? Researching the classic ballet and providing insight to the director? I mean, if the judge said they have to get paid, clearly they were doing stuff above and beyond classic internship tasks, right? Wrong. According the NY Times they answered phones, took out the trash, collected lunch orders, and arranged travel plans.

Eric Glatt, who graduated from undergrad in 1991 and holds an MBA, was thrilled, saying:

“I hope that this sends a very loud and clear message to employers and to students doing these internships, and to the colleges that are cooperating in creating this large pool of free labor — for most for-profit employers, this is illegal.”

If this is the message the ruling sends, color me a little less thrilled than Mr. Glatt. Like I said, unpaid internships kinda suck, and what’s worse – sometimes the people who offer them think that THEY are doing YOU a huge favor by letting you work for free. But it’s something, and right now, we need to be providing as many somethings to new graduates as we can. The ruling isn’t going to inspire companies to open up their wallets and start paying their interns; it’s going to inspire them to cut their internship programs entirely.

Unless, of course, they provide something similar to “vocational training given in an educational environment.” But this creates a similar problem; why revamp your entire internship program when you can just shut the thing down? Is it really worth the trouble anymore?

And that’s just from the company’s side of things. To be totally honest, I’m not sure I want internships to be “vocational training.” I want the raw, real experience. When I was a freshman in college, I interned at a comedy club run by a guy who worked as an agent for comedians. I did a lot of the same things that these Black Swan interns did. It was terrible. I saw just how gritty and disgusting the world of comedy management is. I hated every minute of it. And that’s why it was an EXTREMELY helpful experience. I came in interested; I left disenchanted. I pursued other interests and landed on my feet. I didn’t need training. I just needed to see.

So basically, unpaid internships aren’t always fun. Sometimes they’re exploitive and evil. But until we have something else for young graduates to fall into, they’re a necessary evil, and we should be careful to protect them because if they go away entirely, then what options do we have?

What do you think of the ruling? Let us know in the comments.

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