CLARKE HUMPHREY’S checking account was down to its last 82 cents. The Dorchester native was in the running for a lucrative corporate PR summer internship that would have paid and even covered her housing, but instead she opted for one of journalism’s most elite opportunities: interning at Conde Nast Traveler. The glamorous magazine gig was unpaid, and unlike many of her more well-heeled peers, the Northwestern University journalism student was banking on a $3,000 Scripps Howard grant to fund her entire summer in Manhattan, bunking in an NYU dorm in Tribeca and spending the last two weeks crashing at her brother’s Lower East Side apartment. After six weeks on the job, Humphrey sold her first pitched piece for publication on the magazine’s website. As the newbie journalist recalls, it was a “monumental moment.”
Except “selling” would be a slight misnomer.
As an unpaid intern, naturally, she received no pay.
Is 21-year-old Humphrey a savvy networker positioning herself for future success? Or a vulnerable member of a generation being exploited in a shaky economy? The answer to both could be yes. In what activists envision as a nascent social movement — and some bosses see as ungrateful whippersnappers unwilling to pay their dues — a slew of unpaid interns have filed suit against their former employers, including high-profile companies such as Fox Searchlight Pictures, Hearst Magazines, Gawker Media, NBCUniversal, Sony, and Conde Nast, claiming they were, in fact, employees under federal labor laws and demanding back pay. Some of the cases are still in progress or the sides have settled, and in a few instances the interns have lost. But in June came a federal district judge’s decision that got everyone’s attention: He ruled in favor of two interns who had worked on the set of the Fox Searchlight film Black Swan. That decision has set employers here and nationwide scrambling to reevaluate the legality of their own internships.
“I think we may be seeing the beginning of the end of the unpaid internship in the for-profit sector,” says Ross Perlin, a New York City-based author who put a spotlight on the issue with his 2011 book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. “I think you’re beginning to see a culture change.” For now, Fox Searchlight is appealing the judge’s decision, while Conde Nast made a move that surprised the business world — simply shuttering its 2014 internship program, possibly a gloomy harbinger for many.
Humphrey, who graduates in June, sympathizes with her peers bringing suit — to a point. “Unpaid internships really devalue our work,” she says. “The fact that they won’t pay is like a slap in the face.” However, she fears these cases may end up blocking the professional path for those coming up behind her. “I knew going in it was going to be difficult financially, so I planned for that. It seems dishonest to knowingly go into an unpaid internship and then at the end decide it wasn’t fair.”
THE UNPAID INTERN is a longstanding figure on the bottom of the corporate ladder, particularly in so-called “glamour industries” such as media and showbiz, where multiple applicants jockey for each spot and have even been known to pay thousands of dollars for the privilege. Last summer’s comedy The Internship played the competitive angle for laughs, with fortysomethings Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson taking internships at Google, gunning for a coveted full-time job at the film’s end.
But the reality isn’t so funny. Perlin estimates that more than a million US students across all industries are interning each year, about one-third to one-half of them for no pay. (The Globe’s interns and co-ops all receive wages, although students participating in Northwestern’s Journalism Residency program earn course credit and receive a stipend from their school.) “This is a generational rite of passage,” says Perlin. “We now have a massive culture of unpaid work that may have started decades ago with good intentions but has really gone off the rails. The vast amount of what goes on at for-profit employers is illegal and unethical and erodes the ethic of a fair wage for a day’s work.”
Nathan Parcells, San Francisco-based cofounder and chief marketing officer of the website InternMatch, is also a critic of the status quo. “Internships used to be for the hustlers. Now around 63 percent of college students do one before they graduate; it’s gone up by more than threefold in the last 20 years. It’s becoming almost essential before you get a first-time job.” Career counselors at Boston-area universities are happy to tout the benefits: Students gain practical experience, build their resumes and networking contacts, and get to explore prospective career paths before investing years of study. But critics question whether these opportunities have turned into obligations, whether companies have pressed their advantage too far during a stagnant economy, and if students are being led down a path of serial internships going exactly nowhere. Continued...