Last August, new to Brooklyn and on the hunt for paid gigs in anything related to the arts, I was happy to have finally scored an interview with a non-profit arts organization looking for a content writer. This particular organization functioned as both a gallery and a web-and-print-based publication dedicated to giving New Yorkers the inside scoop on upcoming shows and events in the arts. Having sent out many dozens of resumes over the course of the summer to little or no response, the interview alone seemed like a big win. And with a background working for both for-profit and non-profit arts organizations and experience in professional writing and editing, this position was well within my skill set.
The nice folks I interviewed with were thrilled with my experience, and determined that I was a great fit for the organization and the professional writing work they needed done for their publication. They offered me a position on the spot. But when I steered the conversation toward the topic of compensation, I was told that what turned out to actually be just an “internship” would be rewarded only with an “in” to multiple arts events and all the free coffee I could drink. There was simply no budget to pay someone, not even someone as qualified as myself. The work that they deemed essential to the functioning of their organization, as the case were, wasn’t worth paying someone for.
After leaving that interview promising to think it over, I found myself asking: was this worth it? I wasn’t going to gain any skills with this position. I wasn’t going to be receiving any form of school credit. I certainly wasn’t going to be paid, not even minimum wage. I would, in essence, be doing this organization a giant favor in the form of free labor for 15-20 hours per week. The perk of knowing more about what was happening in the New York City arts scene and making connections that could, perhaps, eventually lead to actual paid work was appealing, but the amount of energy I’d have to put in for something that really ought to have some form of compensation besides coffee (which I didn’t drink at the time, regardless) seemed necessary. I wrote them a nice email an hour later politely declining, and didn’t hear from them again.
Such is the plight of the Millennials. We enter the job market backed with B.A.s, M.A.s and often legitimate experience, but are met with a sea of internships that are nowadays too often set up to take advantage of a young work force eager for whatever they can get, even if it doesn’t pay. And while plenty of internships do offer school credit, stipends, legitimate work experience, or a small salary--as they are required to by law--far too many have cropped up to replace what were once paid positions. Even a cursory view of the job listings on websites like Craigslist will show hundreds of posts each week looking for free, skilled labor in exchange for the “experience” of getting to work in your field, build a portfolio, or maybe possibly land a position if you prove yourself. The hurdles for 20-somethings to find decently paying work are that much taller, and there are that much more along the path to a career.
This was not always the case. By 2008, a study released by The National Association of Colleges and Employers concluded that 50% of graduating students had worked an internship, up from 17% in 1993. Many of these were unpaid internships, and there is little doubt many of them had displaced, at least in part, what were once paid positions lost to the recession.
Moreover, the terms of many internships are increasingly problematic, with too many of them being exploitative at best and illegal at worst. While internships traditionally have had a certain amount of coffee-fetching and other unglamorous tasks associated with them, there are more than a few accounts of interns being misled into spending the bulk of their internship doing unskilled labor in lieu of bettering their career prospects. An intern at a law firm might, for instance, find themselves spending their days doing janitorial work instead of learning, you know, law. On the other end of the spectrum, some internships have the opposite problem, in which they require their interns to do skilled work without being paid for positions that would have once been salaried and with benefits.
In a recent win for the interns, a judge ruled that Fox Searchlight violated federal law when one of its interns, working as an accounting clerk on the set of Black Swan, was required to work in just such a predicament without receiving anything in the way of school credit, job training, legitimate career experience, or monetary compensation. But this is a small win, considering that twenty-somethings across the nation are working in similar situations and rationalizing it as simply the lumps we must take to climb the career ladder. Few recognize it for the exploitation that it is, or appreciate the fact that it disenfranchises the many, many young Americans who can’t afford to spend a summer working for free, full-time, in a place like New York City.
The reality is that as a generation, we are both eager--desperate even--for work, and too often ignorant of the laws surrounding internships, resulting in a perfect storm of generational conditions that, coupled with a bad economy, make us an ideal source of free or underpaid skilled labor for penny-pinching companies. And the justifications for these internships, both from the interns themselves (“this must lead to a job”) and the companies they work for (“in a tough economy, we can’t afford to pay”) are arguments riddled with holes, as this awesome strip very perfectly explains.
So how to change this situation? Without a doubt, more lawsuits will have to be brought to companies that are increasingly relying on internships to displace paid labor. The fact of the matter is, while the U.S. Department of Labor has outlined rules for what constitutes internships, no one is really enforcing those guidelines. But there are things that Millennials can do to change the situation on a personal level.
For starters, as a rule, we need to stop accepting to work for nothing. For young creative professionals, this simple rule extends well beyond internships: agreeing to design a web page or create a logo in exchange for “experience” is exploitation, pure and simple. Young people also need to be more aware of what their skills are worth. Whether you are a writer, an illustrator, a musician, or an editor, if you estimate a gig is going to take fifteen hours of your time, and it ultimately pays $100...well, that’s about $6.50 dollars an hour, below minimum wage and not worth anyone’s time. So set a goal for an hourly wage, and stick with it; if a company, a client, or an employer tries to sell you on a gig that pays below your goal, only agree to it if it’ll benefit you in other ways. Otherwise, it is not worth it.
There is a place for internships, there is no doubt about that. But there is also little doubt that since the economy soured employers have been redefining and expanding the term “internship” in a scheme to save money, and we have too often acquiesced. The laws need to be better regulated, and ultimately only lawsuits and political action will bring any traction on that end. But as a generation, we also need to stop agreeing to work for nothing. In the end, we need to demand better of ourselves and the people that employ us.