Once upon a time, the concept of the apprenticeship was how everyone learned a trade. You worked under an expert for years and got shit for pay, but you learned a trade that you would hopefully go on to master yourself, provided you didn’t die of the plague or get conscripted for a crusade. Fast forward to the 20th Century and the rise of the white collar job. It was a simple system: go to college, get a job wherever you want. A college degree was like paper gold back then. Fast forward once more to present day. Suddenly, everyone goes to college. Unless you made the genius decision (or huge mistake) of going to an Ivy, jobs don’t just fall over themselves to get you.
Now that a diploma is about as valuable as a mansion in Florida purchased in 2007, what have we done? Improved the hiring process from just being a massive database of résumés to actually finding ways to properly evaluate candidates? No, that’s too time consuming. Established connections with schools to find good future talent? If you count passing out pens to bored college students, sure. No, the solution from corporate America is the unpaid internship.
Internships used to be hugely valuable augmentations to undergraduate education. Sure, you could choose to spend the summer drinking with your buddies in your college town, or you could actually do some work that’s related to what you want to do in the future (and still drink a lot). If you were lucky, you could find an internship with some sort of stipend, or at the very least, in your hometown, so you could mooch off your parents while pretending to be responsible.
But the internship has morphed into something entirely different now. A role that used to be entirely focused on providing students with an opportunity to learn some skills, and also serve as a talent-feeder for companies, has now become a way to source out grunt work for free. Here’s the deal. I don’t mind getting coffee or making copies. I’ve worked jobs with far worse daily activities. However, if you’re going to force me to do only that and not really offer me an opportunity to learn the business or have any sort of employment light at the end of the tunnel, then you should be fucking paying me for it.
Luckily, I’m out of the world of internships now, but I still see it happen every day. The group most notorious for using unpaid interns as free labor is the entertainment industry. Happily, Fox Searchlight just lost a pretty big lawsuit, which came from some former interns who had worked on “Black Swan.” Stuff like this is starting to change the pace. Movie studios and TV networks are a lot better now about making sure that interns are doing jobs that add value to the internship, not to the company. However, production companies, post-production houses, management companies, and talent agencies still run rampant with unpaid interns doing assistant-type work.
This problem affects everyone. If the low-level jobs that low-level employees used to do start going to interns, then companies can start phasing out those actual, paid jobs. And if assistants no longer have to take care of the time-consuming stuff, they can use more of their time with bigger issues, which require more responsibility. Ordinarily, this would be good, except the assistants aren’t getting paid any more money than they previously were. Every job title basically takes a pay cut or an upgrade in work, and wages stay the same. I love capitalism, but that system is horseshit.
Companies need to get back to the true nature of the internship. Pick a bunch of bright, young kids who think they know shit about the world and then slowly show them that they know about as much as Jon Snow (for non-“Game of Thrones” watchers, he knows nothing). Foster a fun learning environment, and above all, turn the other way when they start hooking up, because if I know one thing for sure, internship groups are basically huge fuckfests disguised as higher education. It’s a better outcome for everyone involved, I promise.