Better Policies for Hiring Interns


Certainly the 22-year-olds I work with are more enthusiastic, open-minded, creative, and focused than I certainly was at 22. And there are more of them and fewer jobs, so they don’t have as many chances to fuck up. How are you supposed to get experience failing if failing isn’t really an option anymore?

Doree Shafrir is an executive editor at Buzzfeed who’s hired and managed her fair share of millennials. Her piece, “Can the Intern Hamster Wheel Be Stopped?” takes a hard look at the troubling trend of ‘do a dozen unpaid internships everywhere but then never find a job in the creative industry to which you just devoted your early 20s.’ It is nice to hear discussion about what can be done from people who have the power to do something about it:

So now the onus has shifted to people like me, who are hiring them and managing them — and, I think, collectively failing them. When we get internship applications from people who have had three, four, five, or more internships in our field, with no full-time job on their resume, it is kinder for us to reject them than perpetuate the hope that they might one day break through.

I think the solution to this is to reduce the number of internships we’re offering in the first place, pay all of our interns, be more selective about the interns we do hire, and limit the term of an internship to no more than four months — things that we’ve already put into place at BuzzFeed. Those of us who are hiring interns should only be hiring people whom we feel we could potentially hire as full-time employees, and we should only hire as many interns as we can have performing meaningful work — work that will help them get hired one day.

That kind of policy seems ideal to me, if not as feasible for organizations without the kind of money Buzzfeed has. Nevertheless, a good standard.

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28 Comments / Post A Comment

jfruh (#161)

That kind of policy seems ideal to me, if not as feasible for organizations without the kind of money Buzzfeed has.

Yeah, but the thing is … if you don’t have the kind of money to do this, then you shouldn’t be having internships? Like, you wouldn’t say “Well, the big guys can pay their janitors, but we don’t have the money to do that, so we’ll just keep having them work for free.”

sherlock (#3,599)

@jfruh Exactly!

Meaghano (#529)

@jfruh I am pretty sure I agree with you, with some hesitation! Or I definitely do on principle, but wonder if it comes down to it if there are some really valuable unpaid internships that, if they had to be paid, would no longer exist and then what? Maybe everything would be better! Unsure.

Marille (#5,933)

@Meaghano I think in that case, those smaller organizations can come to individual relationships with those people who really, really want to do the work. Or, just call it what it is–volunteering. You can still use it as a way of finding potential hires.

@Meaghano Not wholly related to the “creative” industries but I would be REALLY curious as to see what this would look like in the NFP/NFP industrial complex world. I mean, basically, there is a ton of stuff being done by unpaid interns–some as ways to get credit for degrees and whatever (been there, done that) but definitely packaged in this, “Oh, you want to affect change? We can’t pay you, but man, just think of the shine on your apple!”

Also the type of work being done for some of these orgs without pay is shaaaaameful. :\

Meaghano (#529)

@Marille I like that. My one unpaid internship was with 826NYC, which is a nonprofit tutoring center where almost everyone there is a volunteer, so I was basically like an uber-volunteer. I did the internship while I was a nanny and the kid was in school, and through connections there I ended up getting my next job, and a couple babysitting gigs, and other freelance work, so I harbor no resentment, but those were very specific circumstances!

@Carmen Aiken@facebook Seriously! I would actually be extremely leery of Marille’s “individual relationships” idea because that veers way too close to illegal nonpayment for services, which the nonprofit sector already does too much of. Volunteering/interning need to be managed MUCH more carefully than we currently do as an industry.

I already think the Hill has a huge problem of only hiring people who are rich enough to work there for nothing/peanuts, and it’s starting to show in legislators’ long-term retention of quality staff. I don’t want to see that problem grow everywhere else, too. Unpaid internships can die, as far as I’m concerned.

The U.S. has enormously flexible labor laws. Why not just hire your ‘interns’ as normal hourly, at-will employees with no benefits, then create a pipeline for them to advance through the organization? At the very least, “paid employee of Prestigious Organization X” will better help them land a real job somewhere else than “unpaid intern of Prestigious Organization X doing the job a paid employee would have done 20 years ago.”

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@stuffisthings Not if your “paid employee of Prestigious Organization X” resume line is only eighteen weeks long. Many internships are super-short, in part to coincide with semesters or summer breaks.

@HelloTheFuture That’s true. I think there’s still a role for those kinds of internships but they need to be much more strictly enforced (and ideally schools should pay the students).

It’s these post-grad “internships” that should be replaced by paid, hourly, contract employment — of indefinite length (or maybe with a maximum cap of a year or 18 months). If it doesn’t work out, fire the kid and hire a new one; if they do well, give them a real salary job. Seems like this would work out better for everyone.

la peagoise (#6,003)

@stuffisthings The hourly, at-will structure is basically how engineering internships and co-ops work. I spend a summer or a semester working with a company, do some design work, get exposed to the industry terms and such, and bam, ridiculously more hireable than other engineering grads.

We also get paid pretty well, usually with a housing stipend. (As an hourly co-op with exactly one year and one semester of engineering, I make as much as I did in my previous career, a job that required a bachelors degree, though they preferred a masters.)

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@stuffisthings I can see the benefits to the employee, but why would companies do this? Adding employees adds to your tax base (and I don’t know whether interns count toward the Obamacare minimum employee numbers — I suspect they don’t). Interns are free. If one works out, then the company can make the hire at that point.

@WayDownSouth I’ve supervised interns, and while they’ve been pretty great, there’s only so much they can do with their skills (all our interns are in school) and their limited time with us. By contrast, when we’ve had temp-to-hire employees they have almost invariably worked super hard and done a great job (because they have more experience, they aren’t distracted by school/another job, and they really want the permanent gig). I suspect that one paid entry-level employee is worth 2-3 unpaid interns in terms of what they give to the organization. The difference would be even greater if organizations were currently providing the level of training and support they are supposed to give to interns by law.

ETA: Plus they are far from “free.” There are supervision, training, and overhead costs associated with maintaining an intern, let alone a whole fleet of interns. Plus as I said you are SUPPOSED to provide significant education/support if you don’t actually pay them.

3jane (#645)

@stuffisthings I agree with everything you’ve said here, and want to add–to give your unpaid interns the education/experiences they’re supposed to be having, your employees need to have enough room on their plate to actually supervise them. Ultimately every version of a crappy internship you can think of (unpaid entry-level work, unpaid/paid staring at the wall for 7 hours, etc.) could possibly be traced back to the fact that everyone has too much work on their plates to begin with.

Also, instead of schools paying students in internships, why not let them receive the credits but not be charged tuition for them?

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@stuffisthings yes, fair enough. When I referred to free, the interns don’t cost anything in terms of pay, insurance, regulation numbers (e.g., Obamacare minimums). The supervision and training impacts probably don’t have additional costs since a permanent employee usually takes on supervising the interns in addition to normal tasks (as I did at my previous company).

I definitely agree with you about temp-to-hire employees compared to interns. They generally work harder and take the job more seriously. In a struggling economy, though, the question is about getting less-efficient “free” people versus more-efficient paid people. If the company has enough money, then hire the paid person. But if the economy is struggling (e.g., almost everything in publishing), then it makes sense to take the “free” option.

jfruh (#161)

@WayDownSouth why would companies do this? Adding employees adds to your tax base (and I don’t know whether interns count toward the Obamacare minimum employee numbers — I suspect they don’t). Interns are free.

I mean, why would companies pay anybody if they don’t have to? Obviously that’s not in their best interests. But having coerced unpaid labor wasn’t in society’s best interests, which is why we legislated it out of existence.

Also I’m not sure what the point of saying adding employees “adds to your tax base” is? Adding employees adds to what you have to pay in compensation generally, some of which goes to taxes. It’s not like adding paid employees would be magically free if there were no taxes.

@jfruh To that point, adding salary costs usually reduces your tax liability if your firm is profitable. In that case it’s just a choice of whether you want to do that by hiring entry-level employees or giving the senior managers hefty bonuses.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@jfruh it’s common for tax thresholds on companies to be based on the number of employees. The amount of tax which a company pays can rise with the number of employees. For example, under Obamacare, companies under 50 employees do not have to provide medical insurance. Companies over 50 employees do. Since the individual mandate was determined to be a tax by the Supreme Court, the effective taxes on a company changes once you get to employee number 51. (Note that I’m not trying to argue about Obamacare. This is the first example that I thought of regarding tax changing based on the number of employees.)

Regarding why companies hire people, they do so when they believe that the results of a person’s labour outweighs their costs. For example, if you want to publish a newspaper, you need writers, editors, etc. The question we’re discussing is the value of unpaid, relatively unskilled labour.

As far as coercing unpaid labour, that’s not the situation with interns. No one forces the interns to work there. The interns apply in their thousands for these positions. As far as I know, if the interns start to work at jobs and don’t it, they can quit. They choose to work at the company for free and can choose to leave whenever they want. That’s hardly slavery.

Also I do think that the entire pipeline to the creative industries (and other “prestige” jobs like journalism, public service, and international development) should become much more selective. I love the arts and humanities but it seems insane to graduate 10 or 20 times as many students each year into industries where full-time employment is shrinking or growing very slowly. Selectivity would also mean more support available for those who do get in, which would be a boon to talented students who don’t come from rich families.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@stuffisthings if the “pipeline” reference is intended to include universities, then I don’t think they’ll go for it. Universities can charge significant amounts of money to push numerous journalism* graduates through its programs and take no responsibility for the students’ outcomes. I don’t see why the universities would voluntarily reduce the journalism graduate numbers because of the impact to their revenue.

*this argument can also apply to other degrees which don’t have good post-graduation job prospects (e.g., anthropology, sociology, philosophy).

@WayDownSouth Sure, “should” is different from “will.” As the BuzzFeed article intimates, I do think the large number of internships offered by creative industries help maintain a false sense of hope, though. We’ll see how Conde Nast shutting down their internship program incentivizes all those young people with dreams of a fashion mag internship…

Elsajeni (#1,763)

@WayDownSouth What I’d really like to see from universities in this regard would be honest employment statistics for their graduates, made highly visible to entering students — and not just “has a job” vs. “doesn’t,” but broken down to a more useful level, so you can tell “has a paid, full-time job in their field” apart from “has an unpaid internship in their field,” and both of those apart from “has an unrelated job that they took to pay the bills.” I did a combined master’s/teaching licensure program, and I think accurate numbers on the question “So, how many of last year’s grads now have full-time teaching jobs?” would have changed some of the decisions the folks in my cohort made.

(At the same time, I understand why that’s unusual — not just because it would paint a less flattering picture, but also because I work in university administration, in the department that administers that type of survey to our students and recent graduates, and oh my God it is like pulling teeth to get them to answer the damn survey and it only gets worse the longer and more detailed the questions are.)

@Elsajeni Hell just include the BLS outlook for that job category with your admission letters, that alone would be a big help. (Yes students can look it up on their own but who does?)

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@Elsajeni yes, I agree with you. You make some excellent points.

Law schools are known for gaming the system in order to produce better-looking results for the job surveys. It would be great to have a per-department breakdown of employment results on each university’s website. I suspect, though, that we’re very unlikely to see this happen…

Chiming in here to say: Interning for the creative fields, low-paying temp jobs for people who graduate with liberal arts degrees. We’ve really done a great job to ensure a well-educated populace, humans.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@Jake Reinhardt yes, you’re right. If the jobs aren’t there for a given field or industry, churning out even more graduates doesn’t help anyone.

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