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The Last Word: In Defense of Unpaid Internships

Internships offer one thing that greenhorns crave and employers desperately seek: experience.

Interns—those coffee-toting masters of the menial task—deserve a day’s pay for their toils.

Yet, I felt no rush of vindication that justice was finally served for the interns who sued and last month won their case against Fox Searchlight because they weren’t compensated during their internships while working on the film Black Swan. They weren’t there to pull a check. Internships offer one thing that greenhorns crave and employers desperately seek: experience.

Remember the Catch-22 in the earliest days of your career when, as a quivering, intimidated candidate at a job interview, the boss would study your résumé and harrumph, “not enough experience”? And you muttered, “but if I can’t get a job in [enter your chosen profession here], how will I get any experience?” to which the gruff old guy wheeled around in his chair, stared a hole right through you and barked, “That’s your problem, kid, not mine.”

Maybe that wasn’t exactly how it went down for you, but I suspect it was close. As a manager who has hired plenty of folks—especially those early in their careers—I’ve always valued at least a shred of real-life experience in a job candidate.

Lots of young people will be adamant: Sorry, no pay, no play; to heck with working at some rinky-dink operation that can’t cough up enough dough to pay what amounts to Popeye’s chicken strips and a six-pack of beer that night. And bully for them.

But what about the people who actually take an unpaid job? Are they just that much hungrier? Will they ultimately be the high achievers because they had the foresight to sacrifice short-term paydays for career-building experience? They see that it’s not forever. If the work sucks or becomes a financial hardship, interns can move on.

There also are cash-strapped, understaffed supervisors who recognize and appreciate that kind of commitment. Some will repay the loyalty by giving interns a permanent job the minute a slot opens.

As you’ve probably guessed, I worked an unpaid internship as a news writer during morning drive at the San Diego station KBZT-FM, which has undergone several format changes since. My boss, Heather O’Neill, was a Les Nessman-like news junkie, and boy you had to be as well to curry her favor. Heather was tough as nails, and shifts were a grind—five days a week, rewriting the news at least 10 different ways from 5:30 to 9 a.m. for news breaks on the quarter hour. It may have been perpetually happy K-Best 95 cranking out peppy pop tunes like “Margaritaville” and “Afternoon Delight”; we interns gloomily called it “The Rock.”

But as we cranked out the rewrites and made rounds of cop calls, I was gaining experience that I carry today. Like the morning after John Lennon’s assassination. I probably rewrote it 20 times because of additional news updates. It was a story I hated to write but that I had to write.

It never occurred to me to check out the Fair Labor Standards Act and see if the station had “functional control” of our careers, like a New York judge ruled in the Black Swan case, though a paycheck to help with gas for my powder-blue 1974 AMC Hornet would have been appreciated.

Pundits say that last month’s ruling is the death knell for unpaid internships. Simple math shows it’s cheaper to pay a kid minimum wage for 20 hours a week than to have him or her haul your company into court.

To this day I don’t feel like I was used during my internship. I gained more experience in my six months on The Rock than at any classroom.

So sure, pay your intern, or at least hand over a stipend; it’s the right thing to do. Yet with managers complaining that college grads are ill-prepared for the rigors of a daily job, unpaid internships can offer basic training for young workers they couldn’t get anywhere else. Instead of letting the Black Swan ruling kill off a truly valuable training tool, let’s revisit the laws governing all internships.

You’d be amazed by the amount of experience you can gain in the long haul by spending six months for free on The Rock.         

Rick Bell is Workforce’s managing editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Bell on Twitter at @RickBell123.