What It Means to Be an Intern

Interns are a hot topic right now: At Bank of America in London, an intern died after working 72 hours straight. Condé Nast recently decided to stop paying interns. Diddy's record label is being sued by a former intern, who claims she was never paid. And Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In organization made waves when they announced they were hiring unpaid interns.

The Bank of America intern, Moritz Erhardt, was a business student who had allegedly worked until 6 AM three nights in a row. In addition to paid analyst and associate internships, BOA offers paid internships for students as young as high school juniors. But at Condé Nast — where interns previously received a small stipend — there's now no pay for the work involved. Sheryl Sandberg made $91 million last week, the same week her Lean In organization was searching for an unpaid intern. And even with the music industry in shambles, you can imagine that Rashida Salaam — who a filed class-action lawsuit today against Bad Boy records, accusing company of violating minimum-wage laws by not paying interns — is not alone in having worked for free while surrounded by folks with million dollar watches. (Diddy himself started his career as an intern at Uptown Records.)

Here's the question: What does it mean to be an intern? What is an internship? Traditionally, it's a position that allows a below-entry-level person to gain on-the-job work experience — and life experience. It is not necessarily (or even primarily) a paid position — hence the term paid internship. I, like many in my field, have had both paid and unpaid internships. In high school I worked at a local paper and received nothing in return but the excitement: I'm working at a paper! I opened mail and once went to a community board meeting as "press"; it was boring, but I learned something about how media works. In college, where I was a screenwriting major, I worked (for school credit) in the Story Department at Universal Pictures, and part of my everyday duties included throwing scripts in the garbage, which was both depressing and illuminating; I learned I did not really want to be a screenwriter. Can you put a price on that sort of epiphany?

Advertisement

My coworker, Tracie, was an intern at Talk Magazine, where she did a lot of grunt work, including returning Tina Brown's borrowed clothing for events back to Bergdorf. But she also got to see and learn a lot about Brown, and how decisions get made at a magazine — from the critiques of the layouts on the wall to scrapping entire photo shoots and managing staff. Her stipend was $10 a day.

There are many valid critiques of the unpaid intern model: Uncompensated labor is a human rights violation. The system benefits the company, not the intern, and can be the sole dominion of rich kids who can afford to spend their days with an unpaid job. How is the average young person supposed to live if an internship requires so many hours out of the week and so little income? If a company is profitable — making millions — why can't it budget for internships?

On the other hand, however, there are things one cannot learn in school: how to conduct yourself in an office, how to navigate hierarchies and cubicle politics, how big ideas go from conceptual meetings to development and production. The ideal internship is not just about grunt work; it offers insight into the intricacies of how business gets done, and how being a cog in the machine — from making copies to getting coffee — allows the process to run smoothly. If it's truly educational, the value is in the knowledge. You're being paid in experience.

Are there shitty stories of humiliation, thankless tasks and abuse? Certainly. But ideally, an internship is temporary, not full-time, and actually gives an inexperienced person a chance to work in the field — possibly at the company — of his or her dreams. Having put years between myself and my internships, I don't regret taking unpaid positions (though I thank mighty Zeus for the paid ones). I regret not trying more internships, testing the waters at different companies. The opportunities — to network, to have people who can eventually hire you know your name — are valuable.

Should a booming company pay its interns? Sure. But should a non-profit be prohibited from hiring interns because it can't pay them? I'm not sure there's an easy answer to that, but it seems like there are situations where the system can be mutually beneficial.

Or maybe companies should just start calling these folks volunteers instead.

Image by Sam Wooley.