Death to free internships: my personal experience with a reprehensible practice

As I mentioned in our February 2014 issue, I am republishing this article, written by former Editor-in-Chief, Isaiah L. Carter, online only, for the purposes of addressing some responses to it that were not properly recognized last year.

Death to free internships: my personal experience with a reprehensible practice

By Isaiah L. Carter, Editor-in-Chief

Until this past summer, I had a hard and fast rule: no unpaid internships. I had never taken an internship of any kind, having thought myself beyond them as a man at the start of my thirties. Perhaps as an older millennial with experience in the automotive industry, I had come to understand the value of every dollar for a day’s work, especially having worked for dealerships that were notorious for shorting sales consultants of commissions after demanding a 12-14 hour day from them.

I had not yet heard of Sarah Kendzior, the brilliant anthropologist and columnist with al Jazeera, who has done outstanding work in the field of researching the damage to the economy, as well as the brazen immorality of an employer daring to ask someone to give their time, their talents and self-worth for absolutely no compensation at all. A chance meeting with a well-known columnist and radio show host who was impressed with my approach to journalism led to an opportunity to intern with his show. After meeting with his producers, I set a date after the semester ended.

It turned out to be one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. We were barely regarded as people. What was supposed to be a meaningful learning experience ended up being a time of weird degradation, as if the producers, host and program director knew that these college students in search of a solid first step in building their careers were to be treated like serfs. All talking in the producers’ office was forbidden, even to inform them of the findings of our given research projects. Instead, we were required to write an email, even as they sat less than five feet from where we were.

Within two weeks, after which time the producers must have thought my skills to be enough to garner some trust, I was asked to guest produce an hour of the show, in a sort of half-hearted attempt at developing my skills. Without any training or skills development, I was thrown a copy of the guest’s book to prepare for the show cold. Had I not stood my ground and demanded a template or example of how the work was expected to be done, all I would have received was a look of exasperated condescension, of which my producer was known to give plenty.

This was supposed to be a space to develop valuable skills, to become proficient in the field I was volunteering my time toward. I tried to see the value of working for free in the same light that many who defend the practice of free internships do: as a dues-paying measure; a way for prospective employers to see hunger and passion; a true test of a person’s work ethic. Ultimately, I would lose this internship, having lost nothing, but even worse, not gaining anything except a parking ticket.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I have a deeper understanding of just how dangerous free internships actually are. First of all, they are illegal. As of the June decision in Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, any internship that requires work that results in “…providing an immediate advantage to their employer and performing low-level tasks not requiring specialized training” is absolutely due more compensation than mere college credit or valuable experience. Most unpaid internships would collapse if work that fit that definition were eliminated.

Which brings me to my second point, the myth of “valuable” experience. If, as a young, impressionable, ambitious worker looking to get a foot in the door of your chosen profession, you decide to take on an unpaid internship, you instantly negate the value of any experience you hope to get. The aforementioned Sarah Kendzior said in a June interview, “This is a crisis of managed expectations. We have had a fundamental shift in what is “normal” corporate behavior and “normal” personal sacrifice. Because this shift is cloaked in terms like “meritocracy,” and espouses values like hard work and education, people have been reluctant to recognize it for what it is: the annihilation of mobility.”

So know your value, and demand more. Or, in this case, demand what is truly owed to you: compensation for your work.


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