The recent spate of class action lawsuits by unpaid interns seeking pay is disturbing. Perhaps it is yet another example of my own failure to fully understand millennials. Or maybe these young 'ins don't understand that they are crippling their own job prospects. Unfortunately, many will no longer get the chance to decide for themselves. For many premier companies and opportunities, internships will be a thing of the past.
There has been lots of coverage about the legal underpinnings of these cases. And I was particularly intrigued by a guest blog post on Forbes.com from Jack Newhouse, a lawyer with Virginia & Ambinder in New York. He represents interns in lawsuits against Warner Music Group, Atlantic Recording, Chung King Studios, Viacom, Sony, Universal Music Group, Bad Boy Entertainment, Donna Karan, and Madison Square Garden Company. In his post, Unpaid Intern Lawsuits May Reduce Job Opportunities, Newhouse is basically instructing employers about the need to change with the times to avoid these payouts later. Instead, many employers are simply choosing to eliminate the internships altogether. But what he does not talk about is how damaging this is to the job prospects of many college kids entering the real world.
The success that I had in developing my public relations and marketing resume was built around unpaid internships. From the Baltimore Blast of the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) while in high school to internships with the Philadelphia Fever, MISL league office and the Philadelphia Flyers in college. Yes, they were unpaid. Yes, there was some grunt work. I still recall the pain of preparing and copying the weekly press clippings for distribution to the Flyers' brass. Boring! And additional "administrative" responsibilities that did not really enhance my portfolio. We called it "paying our dues." And for each of those lackluster chores came the opportunity to write articles for Flyer Magazine, draft a press release, work hands-on with members of the media, and hang out in the press box.
My Flyers internship ended with trips to New York, Quebec and Edmonton on the road through the Stanley Cup Finals in 1985. A few months later, those same mentors were instrumental in getting me in position for a full-time job as Assistant Director of Public Relations for the Washington Capitals. Many of those front office personnel and media contacts from the MISL and NHL provided me with significant career opportunities. And a great many are still close personal friends today. All that from those unpaid internships. I recall being grateful that the Flyers paid for my subway transit pass to get me from the Temple University campus to the Spectrum. I assume the statute of limitations has run on those internships, but I can assure you that getting paid was the last of my concerns in building experience for the long run. I would never trade a minimum wage stipend for the experience and enjoyment I received.
On this very day that I'm writing this post, my parents are dropping my nephew Max off at his sports radio internship in Baltimore. Max is a high school senior preparing for college in the fall. His duties include some of the typical intern chores. He has also had the opportunity to work on-air and write for the station's blog. This is invaluable experience that will serve him both on college applications and in future job applications. What he gains in experience far outweighs any financial gain.
In reading some of these lawsuit filings, I understand that not all internships are as rewarding as those that I experienced. Some companies do take advantage of internships to simply save on "menial tasks" costs. But a vast majority of those that I've seen and been involved with--including many law firms--are golden opportunities for experience, networking and social development. Even some of those internships that provide little in the "meat and potatoes" experience category still show potential employers who the go-getters are, who has a solid work ethic, and still puts an elite company name on your resume.
Nearly 20 years ago, I interviewed with a National Hockey League general manager for a front office position that reported directly to him. I had my experiences in pro sports PR and marketing, and my law degree. During the interview, he said that he could sense I'd have trouble doing a few of the job requirements--such as perhaps picking up his dry cleaning or getting him a sandwich. I replied that I would not have a problem with it, if he picked me up a sandwich from time to time as well. As you might surmise, he did not hire me. And as you might surmise, I was not interested in picking up anyone's dry cleaning (although ironically, my wife makes me do those same things without compensation today. Perhaps husbands should file class actions for appropriate rewards for these duties.).
When working with the NBA, I was told about how one of the most powerful sports agents in the business got his opportunity. He would get pizzas, dry cleaning and run other errands for a budding NBA superstar. He gained trust and later additional responsibilities. He is routinely on the list of most powerful executives in sports. Without the pizza delivery, who knows where he would be? Most likely not a multimillionaire.
As a lawyer who has worked for some of the companies affected, I know that the counselor in me might even cast a vote for eliminating some or all of an internship program. That would be my responsibility as an attorney advising a corporation. But the "real life" person inside me would dread giving that point of view. Unpaid internships can be the greatest learning experience you'll ever receive. I'd hate to think that some might not even have the opportunity to decide for him or herself.