Conde Nast and Interns - What is Fair?
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." I am going to try to discuss the concept of internship where I hold two opposing thoughts.
I was never an intern as I started my first publication a year or so out of high school. One could say I jumped from unemployment into the frying pan of being a publisher/owner, without the intermediate steps of a normal career, and it is fair to say, I did not do it alone, I had two other partners to lean upon.
Wikipedia says that an "internship is a method of on-the-job training for white-collar and professional careers. Internships for professional careers are similar to apprenticeships for trade and vocational jobs. Although interns are typically college or university students, they can also be high school students or post-graduate adults. On occasion, they are middle school or even elementary students. In some countries, internships for school children are called work experience. Internships may be paid or unpaid, and are usually understood to be temporary positions. Generally, an internship consists of an exchange of services for experience between the student and an organization."
There you have it. Part of the definition is that internships may be paid or unpaid, and are usually understood to be temporary positions. If that is the understood and agreed upon definition, where is all the uproar coming from of interns claiming slave wages and demanding some sort of remuneration? If you are a novice and wish to enter into a deal with a company to learn on the job as an unpaid apprentice, where does the system go awry? How can you make a deal to work and learn and then say, hey I don't like the deal I agreed to, so I am suing you. If the deal is unacceptable, why not quit?
The other side of the argument is that companies like CondeNast, Hearst, Time Inc and all the other major players make billions of dollars and how dare they not pay a fair wage for work provided. I understand this sentiment, and I will admit that on the surface it seems like an understandable request. But if the major players had to pay to teach "kids" would they have them there in the first place. Is it a fair deal? No, not necessarily. But it is a system that has been in place for business from time immemorial. It is also not fair to families that cannot afford to support an intern who needs to learn a profession and wishes to be in publishing. So on some levels the process is discriminatory. And I guess at the end of the day, it comes down to the question of "does business have to be fair?"
Does business have to fair? If so, how do you define fair? Is fairness built into a business plan? I would like to think that a good business is both honest and competitive. If you are competitive, where does fairness come in to play?
It is here where I am trying to hold two opposing ideas in my mind at the same time and still retain the ability to articulate the issue with some sensibility. In my 40 years in the publishing field I had many interns working for me, and I made it my business to see that they grew in knowledge about publishing, gained some "real" experience and left after the summer a better potential employee. Some were paid and some were not.
There are no black and white answers to these questions. But if you agree to work for nothing in exchange for a business education, I don't see where there is validity to then demanding to be paid. If you want to get paid, go somewhere where they will teach you and pay you at the same time. For me it is the agreement part that sticks. Agree to work for free or do not agree. No one is forcing the intern to make that decision.