Being on winter break, I’ve had more time to patrol the Twittersphere than I do during the academic year. In the past day or so, I’ve noticed more tweets about unpaid internships and the dis/advantages thereof.
Earlier, @greglinch tweeted a link to a Christian Science Monitor opinion piece asking, “What if interns went on strike?” The author argues that hard-working interns are often not guaranteed or even tempted with employment with a company, despite their value in the workplace:
Interns are valuable. And as part of the workforce, they are expected to do many of the same tasks that professionals do (along with the menial jobs that no one cares to do).
Many people have, at some point in their lives, worked without pay. Some start businesses, others devote time to charities or nonprofits, and still more apprentice in lucrative mechanical fields. I am all for entrepreneurs, mechanics, and bleeding hearts.
However, conceiving of the unpaid internship as a means to secure paying jobs is as archaic as the corporate ladder model of employment itself. We no longer live in a society where hard work at one company ensures that we will someday reach the zenith of the American dream.
Greg also tweeted a link to a blog post with an internship opportunity offer from famed war photojournalist James Nachtwey‘s studio. Like so many other journalism internships out there, Nachtwey’s offer is unpaid. Unlike so many other journalism internships out there, Nachtwey is ultra-specific about what entry skills he wants his eventual intern to have. These include proficiency with particular scanning equipment and certain Photoshop tasks.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with setting a high standard for an incoming intern — but for those kinds of higher-end technical skills and know-how? For no pay? For at least three days a week for three months? In New York City?
Nachtwey is out of his mind.
But let’s back up and examine the general idea of unpaid internships altogether.
Many larger workplaces — such as big-name newspapers/magazines, law firms and more — don’t pay their interns for a variety of reasons. In many (or, I hope, in most) cases, these workplaces simply don’t have the budget for paid internships but still want to extend an offer so young people interested in that industry can still get good experience. In other cases, some workplaces justify not paying their interns by asserting that the internship experience is so valuable that the experience itself is payment.
The merits are obvious: The workplace gets free labor. The paid employees can often hand off menial tasks and concentrate on their own special projects. The intern gets basic experience that is hopefully valuable enough to compensate for not getting paid.
The non-merits are not as obvious: The paid employees may load off whatever they don’t feel like doing simply because they don’t feel like doing it. The eventual intern may not feel as motivated to do his/her best work because he/she isn’t getting paid for it. Worst of all: Would-be internship applicants don’t even bother applying because they can’t afford an unpaid internship. The applicant pool is therefore restricted — which means the best-qualified people out there aren’t necessarily applying, which means the workplace isn’t necessarily going to get the best-qualified person into that internship position.
As an unpaid photo-editing intern at Washington Post Digital this summer, I can safely say that mine was a valuable experience. I learned more about photo editing than I’d anticipated, contributed to several long-term projects, shot on assignment and did everything I could to support the paid staff.
But I was also waking up every morning at 5:30 to catch the Metro for my hour-long commute to be at work by 8. Working 40 hours a week and some weekends, and not getting paid, was hard to swallow after having a steady-income summer job in the previous three summers. (But I was very fortunate to have my room-and-board taken care of: Jeff’s family welcomed me into their home for the summer.)
From what I’ve heard, the WPD internships weren’t always like that. Before I left Missouri in May, I chatted with Abby Pheiffer, who was then the Columbia Missourian‘s director of photography and who’d interned in 2006 at what was then Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive. Abby said the year she interned was the first time WPNI had not paid their interns — the company simply didn’t have the budget anymore.
In fact, Abby said she’d sensed that the interns’ supervisors felt bad that they could not pay their interns, so they tried to immerse the interns even more into the company and to increase the value of their experience in order to compensate for the non-pay.
I sensed the same kind of sentiment when I arrived at work in D.C. and when I left. My supervisor, Dee, told me that she and the other supervisors tried to look on the bright side of not being able to pay interns by deciding they could simply hire more candidates and extend more opportunities. After she explained this to me, I noticed that instead of limiting the offers to one paid position per department, many of the supervisors had simply doubled their intern count. This meant more students could get more experience and immersion.
And we interns were immersed. Although policy dictated that we ran all the photo galleries by a paid employee before publishing or changing any part of the Web site, Kate (the other photo-editing intern) and I did what the editors did: We built galleries, fielded photo requests from columnists and editors for the entire Web site and worked on projects. I took Abby’s advice to make the most of the internship by volunteering to shoot some assignments.
In retrospect? The internship experience was valuable, and I think it’s safe to assume that having that position on my resume helped me secure a paid photo internship at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution next summer.
That said, in October when I began applying in earnest for internships for next summer, I knew I could not opt for another unpaid internship. It wasn’t just about the finances. It was about how I value myself and my work.
It’s only been five months, but I’ve grown a lot since my summer internship in Washington, D.C. I’ve shot for a daily city newspaper and picked up a few valuable lessons there. I’ve learned a lot of Web and multimedia skills this past semester in my classes. I’ve had more than a full year of photo-editing experience under my belt, from both The Maneater and WPD.
Simply put, I didn’t want to undervalue my work and experiences by applying for unpaid internships. You might be tempted to write me off as a self-important, egotistical photojournalism student, but I’m not the only one unwilling to resign him-/herself to another summer of unpaid work.
So are unpaid internships a necessary evil? Reluctantly, I have to say yes. The news industry is constantly shifting, and there will always be budgets that just can’t afford to pay a student for three months. There will always be journalism students eager to snatch up the unpaid opportunities that others refuse to consider — which means those internship supervisors will continue offering those unpaid opportunities.
Here’s the bottom line for unpaid internships:
- If your workplace is offering unpaid internships, you need to ensure that those internships will actually offer invaluable experience. If the intern will only be doing menial tasks or fetching coffee or picking up phones, don’t even bother writing a listing. The intern is ruling out getting a paid job elsewhere, so make his/her time worth it.
- If you accept an unpaid internship, don’t half-ass it. It’s still an internship, and you’re still fortunate you were offered one. Your supervisors will still rely on you to get your tasks done. Work hard, volunteer more, and contribute and innovate so much that they’ll miss you when you’re gone. This is something that’s hopefully going on your resume, so you need to work as hard and well as you would for any other job on your resume.
I realize I’m just one fish in the ocean on this controversial topic. But having had a valuable unpaid internship experience and now having accepted a paid internship, I wanted to throw my own thoughts into the pool. If you have any comments, criticisms or questions, please feel free to e-mail or comment.
And now I’m going to wrap presents, edit photos and projects, and enjoy some downtime.