Open Letter to the New York Times on Unpaid Internships & Hiring Interns

I’ve read in utter disbelief the multiple articles coming out of the New York Times around unpaid internships.

Repeatedly the articles point to “abuse” and “free labor” yet rarely (if ever) tell an internship success story or how internships actually help create a more trained workforce and may in fact be one solution to the economic crisis this country faces.

I was recently interviewed for an article in your paper around internships and was surprised to see that the article repeatedly referenced Ross Perlin’s book, “Intern Nation,” which is a one-sided look at the issue. While it’s an in-depth look at internships, nowhere does his book provide a solution to the reality facing our nation – new workers who are entering the workforce are woefully under-prepared and are the largest percentage of unemployed.

So the solution, according to Perlin, is to end all internships. All that will do is make on the job training inaccessible for new workers. Internships are just one way that someone who is hardworking and motivated can set themselves apart from their peers who may be wealthier or have more connections.

 

Most concerning is that you reference Mr. Perlin as an “expert” in the field of internships when, in fact outside of his “best selling book” I see no record of expertise or experience in the intern industry.

Specifically I cannot find (though it may exist – you are the reporters, so I’ll leave it to you to prove me wrong):

  1. Any instance that he has employed or managed an intern
  2. Any expertise in the area of human resources or career consulting
  3. Any proof that he runs an internship placement or matching site
  4. Any proof that he’s worked in the government in the area of labor laws or has any experience in labor policy
  5. Any proof that he is in fact a faculty or staff member of an institution of higher education

What I do know to be sure is that he has degrees from Stanford and Cambridge, is currently working on a “Himalayan Languages Project” in southwest China and participated in one internship during his Masters program in England.

He did an incredible job researching the field of internships, something that to date had not been done. He’s also elevated discussions around the topic and I commend him for that.

However, should he have the absolute right to speak on behalf of thousands of students and recent grads that face a bleak professional future in the US and abroad?

In the for-profit world we would consider Mr. Perlin a genius marketer who quickly become an “expert” in a subject he knows little about from first hand experience. Look around you (you simply need only go to Amazon.com); anyone can be a published author on a subject.

As you are The New York Times I would have expected you to understand this but it seems that he is your primary source of “expert” information these days.

In fact, his marketing reach is so strong that I’ve been told his book is now recommended reading for those students taking an internship for credit at some schools.

That’s a great idea, make the future intern feel like their internship is a waste of time and create more of an “entitlement” mentality before the Gen Y’er even steps foot into the employer’s office, further encouraging a stereotype that many Gen X and Boomers absolutely abhor. I frequently hear this from business owners I work with as an objection to hiring interns or even wanting Gen Y’ers in their office – “they have an incredible sense of entitlement.”

My personal experience with Gen Y’ers is contrary to the prevailing belief. I have worked with unpaid interns who desperately wanted some experience with a company who invested in them personally and provided extensive on the job training. I’ve seen enthusiasm and grace; excitement at applying what they’ve learned in the classroom to a real world application; and the drive to do great things and learn as much as possible.

You also have reported that interns are in fact now displacing workers. In this economy jobs are hard to come by, much less internships. Due to the Labor Law crack down on internships many businesses have even abandoned internship programs for fear of being “sued” as you have often covered. Take Mark Cuban, owner of the reigning NBA champions, the Dallas Mavericks, who is an incredible businessman, and someone most professionals (young and old) would die to have as a mentor; he gave up on offering internships and publicly spoke out on the issue and stopped offering internships.

The amount of people searching for an internship far outweighs the amount of companies willing to offer an internship. A lot of companies are unwilling to stick their necks out to offer an internship out for fear of legal retribution; un-prepared to take the time and resources to actually recruit interns (most only stay for four months) and finally, reluctant to take the time and resources to actually train an intern who will leave their company within, on average, four months.

Let’s think about this logically. As a business owner (or government entity or non-profit – I don’t discriminate, unlike the Federal government), if I have a “job” that I need done that realistically would entail a part to full time person working consistently on a daily basis five days a week would I hire an intern? Probably not, it just doesn’t make business sense.

I would likely go out and hire someone that would be on my staff or part of my contractor workforce who would consistently be a resource for me.

Now consider I have projects that are finite and defined that an intern can come onto my team, work on a project or task with a purpose and outcome and actually learn something while they are doing this task? Now also consider the business owner gets some “immediate advantage” to this as well? Is that wrong? Shouldn’t the employer get a benefit from the experience as well after taking the time to mentor the intern, provide him training and showing him how his organization works?

Instead of focusing on the negatives of internships I would suggest you consider looking at solutions to the most important problem facing our nation – a very unprepared workforce and a high unemployment rate amongst 19-24 year olds, versus the few unpaid internship abuses – though I’m sure they make for more interesting news.

Consider looking at the apprenticeship model that the United Kingdom has begun to explore more extensively (and others, like Germany, have seen success from – could this be the reason they are keeping Europe afloat?).

Take a look at Canada’s program that provides grants to small businesses to hire interns and provide a portion of the intern’s salary.

Consider new forms of internships like virtual internships that allow for more students to take internships because of the incredible flexibility and low cost of taking on a virtual internship, allowing for a more level playing field between the haves and have-nots of internships.

We recently released a White Paper on Virtual Internships exploring the pros and cons and the training opportunities they provide in an increasingly global and virtual professional environment. And soon after our White Paper was released Colombia University announced the first ever virtual internship program offered at a college or university.

Consider highlighting past and present interns and success stories – and more importantly why their internships helped them be successful.

For example HuffingtonPost.com’s review of interns before they were famous interns and Inc.com’s famous interns expose. Or simply follow real interns in the real world and do a “where are they now” follow up piece.

Consider consulting for future articles experts in the field of internships and create discussions on how we can provide opportunities for our nation’s youth to help rebuild our economy, including: Robin Richards, CEO of Internships.com; Michael True, Director, Internship Center, Messiah College and Founder of InternQube; the National Association of Colleges and Employers; the Departments of Labor, Commerce and Education; and finally AfterCollege.com’s partnership with the White House’s Summer Jobs+ 2012 program.

In closing and speaking personally, I was not rich nor was I connected. I paid my own way through college working several jobs during the year and summers. However, I did complete both an internship and an externship (what some now call “winterships”) – both unpaid.

I did this over 15 years ago before internships were as “en vogue” or required by schools as they are today. I did this because I wanted to get ahead. I wanted to find a job and have something on my resume that said I could do more than serve drinks, walk a dog or keep your kid safe while swimming in the community pool.

I knew that hard work paid off and that if I paid my dues good things would come my way.

And I’d guess that the majority of interns (at least the twenty five I know and have worked with over the last few years) are the same as me. However the difference now is that most are working full time jobs and still graduating with incredible debt, with limited chances of finding a real job to pay off those college loans.

We’ve had interns go on to do great things. Including our intern, Mike O’Donnell, an inspiring entrepreneur, who, within one year of graduating, has started his own marketing business.

Could internships be a solution to the economic conditions our country and the rest of the world faces? Could good internships, where the intern is engaged in real work and projects to help build a company or organization actually create more jobs – maybe even allow the intern to create his or her own job? I believe they can.

In closing I’d also like to highlight that you, in fact, have your own unpaid internship program.

I assume you have this internship program so that future journalists can come work for one of the best newspapers in the world and get on the job training. I assume that your employees and managers spend a significant amount of time mentoring these individuals and training them on how to be the best journalist for the best newspaper.

I’m also assuming you use this program as a way to recruit new reporters for your paper. I’m sure that the interns you employ go on to do great things professionally and you also get something out of this relationship as well – making an unpaid internship agreement fair.

Dreama Lee
Former Intern
Employer of Interns
Co-Founder of Intern Profits, showing organizations how to find, hire and manage interns to grow their business while providing educational opportunities for tomorrow’s talent today!

 



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18 Responses to Open Letter to the New York Times on Unpaid Internships & Hiring Interns

  1. Pingback: Interns to the Rescue « Strategies and Tactics for Women by Dr. Shannon Reece

  2. Nick Cifonie says:

    As an entrepreneur and full time real estate investor I find the fact that anyone would suggest ending internships ironic… and near absurd. Internships have been a staple of so many industries for so many years, and have launched the careers of many successful businesspeople in many industries.

    How many writers, radio announcers, and television “personalities” discovered their passion while working as an unpaid intern and went on to do wonderful things in their industry?

    The post above cites NY Times articles that target “abuse” that has occurred to interns in the past. Citing the “exception” rather than the “norm” makes for a poor argument. When we eliminate the “abuse” (in its many forms) that takes place in the common paid workplace we can point fingers at the intern industry and cite the source… but until then, it’s a poor argument.

    My daughter is a college senior and will graduate this spring with a degree in elementary education. This last semester she will attend no classes at her university… she is “student teaching” first graders at a local elementary school…

    …and GASP… she is unpaid!

    On the contrary, not only is she unpaid, but I am PAYING some odd $20,000 this semester to allow her to work for free. Do I object? Certainly not… one reason, is it’s the LAW that if she is to teach someday, she MUST “work for free” for a set amount of time before getting her license.

    She shows up every day, works for 7-9 hours and doesn’t get a check at the end of the week. It sounds a lot like an internship to me, with the exception she’s putting in a lot more hours than I imagine the average intern would. Is she being abused? Does she object? Is she being taken advantage of?

    Not in the slightest. In fact, she considers herself blessed to have the ability to “work for free” in this atmosphere… as does thousands of budding student teachers all across the nation. Yes, she does a lot of the grunt-work for the teachers… grading papers, cleaning up at the end of the day… getting coffee… and she loves every minute of it.

    I would venture to say that without having to “stretch” in the least, she indeed IS an intern… who will be better prepared to go out into the working world, have practical experience, feel more confident, have connections she would not have had otherwise… and and and.

    Internships may not be for everyone, but for those who “choose” to enter a program, it can be the springboard to their futures. Like most career decisions, it’s a choice, one that can have powerfully positive impacts not only on the intern but on the company they work for as well.

    Nick

  3. Dreama Lee says:

    Nick,
    Great real life story that many others can definitely relate to.
    Thanks for sharing!
    -Dreama

  4. Pingback: Grow Your Businesses On A Shoestring By Leading « Strategies and Tactics for Women by Dr. Shannon Reece

  5. Dreama Lee says:

    Randy,
    Please keep us posted on your quest to hire an intern. We love to hear your and your interns’ success stories!

  6. Donya Fahmy says:

    I commend you for taking a stand on this but I can see why NYT didn’t publish your Op Ed piece. For one thing you spend a great portion of it trying to refute the credentials of the expert they quoted and relied on for their information, instead of making a persuasive case for the win-win scenario that internships provide for both young inexperienced people trying to get jobs in a down economy and equally important, the role these internships play in supporting small business growth –something many people believe will be the economic engine going forward.

    In fact, I don’t think you even mentioned the term “small business” once in your tirade. Some statistics supporting the notion that small businesses are the backbone of the economy and likely to create the largest amount of new jobs going forward would have been instructive.

    What about the fact that a lot of small businesses simply can’t compete with larger companies and corporations when it comes to hiring talent and offering generous salaries or benefits packages, but by nature of their small size they provide the best work experience opportunities and ability to nurture and develop talent in those who may not be able to command top dollar just out of school? I think if you poke around you can find statistics that indicate that for a lot of people job satisfaction is tied less to the amount of money they make and more to their ability to contribute and participate in a meaningful way –something that doesn’t happen a lot at large corporations.

    You also use the terms “I guess” and “I assume” a lot which only weakens your argument and the point you’re trying to make, since the NYT would not view you as an authority on the subject (all your great work and experience in the subject matter not withstanding of course).

    I think a much shorter piece that is focused on the real benefits to students or unemployed people looking to gain new immediately transferrable and usable skills and experience, as well the role they can play in supporting small business growth would be a lot more persuasive and garner a lot more interest and support.

    Just my .02 worth …

    But keep up the good work that you do. The more small businesses you help create value added internships the more of a groundswell will be created in favor of this trend. It is the right time for this.

  7. Bill Laursen says:

    It is sad to see the once great New York Times continually push for a entitlement society. They have a fundamental problem with business “profits”. In their ideal world all businesses would be “non-profits”. I refuse to let them drain my energy with the “entitlement mentality” that is killing American productivity. Internships provide excellent opportunities for young people that still want to work. We provide Interns the jump start into the job market they so desperately need.

  8. Dreama Lee says:

    Donya,
    Thank you for your honest feedback. I wrote the Open Letter specifically to point out the biased reporting on unpaid internships. Was it a rant, absolutely. Many people in the community feel the same but have not stepped forward to speak out.
    I did in fact point out other issues that the New York Times should be reporting on around a trained workforce however, as you pointed out I could have focused more on small businesses (though, I wanted this to apply to all businesses, large and small, in that internships are valuable to all parties and more focus should be paid to how they can help our country (and others) become more profitable).
    We have and continue to educate the small business community about the value of internships for both the business owner and intern. If you’ve been on any of our trainings you would hear that loud and clear.
    Over the next few weeks/months we are going to be featured in articles/blogs posts and interviews on the importance of internships around the topics you mentioned – small businesses and entrepreneurs. We have articles coming out on social entrepreneurship and specifically around small businesses/entrepreneurs and internships. We are doing a presentation to the NFIB (National Association of Independent Businesses – one of the largest organizations representing small businesses) in April and will be featured in 2 of their upcoming newsletters.
    Thank you again for your comments!

  9. Pingback: Intern Profits Issues Open Letter to New York Times in Response to Biased Reporting on Unpaid Internships « CashWake.com | CashWake News

  10. Yoni says:

    You mention how the NY Times should consult experts in the field of internships such as the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). However, NACE states in their 2011 Student Survey Report, “The unpaid internship offers no advantage to the job-seeking student.” Why is their finding wrong?

  11. Dreama Lee says:

    They did not quantify that statement – they just made the statement. While I believe that internships, paid or unpaid, are a valuable tool for new workers entering the workforce, it is statistically true that paid internships due lead to higher employment after the internship. However, what is not taken into account is that over half of all internships are unpaid and of those that are paid are concentrated in a few fields of study (finance, accounting, IT, etc.).
    To state that unpaid internships offer no advantage to the job-seeking student there must be statistics to support this statement – here, there are none present.
    I do not always agree with NACE, but I do believe they have a voice in this discussion and their validated/statistically supported points should be considered.

  12. Pingback: Spotted: another weak defense of unfair internships « Unfair Internships

  13. ExIntern says:

    A lot of bad behaviors could be justified on the basis that they also have an upside: robbery, slavery, speeding, etc. I explain in more details on my blogwhy your argument does not constitute a valid defense of unfair internships.

  14. Scott Leland says:

    I can see why the New York Times rejected your editorial. It comes across as very angry, whereas the articles to which you linked provide perspectives from both sides.

    It seems like the name of your company betrays your motive: InternProfits.

  15. Dreama Lee says:

    Angry? Only at the media and the author of the book who clearly make a lot more sales being hype driven and negative vs. providing solutions.
    Passionate, yes. We believe that internships provide incredible opportunities for the intern and for the business owner when done correctly. And that they can and should be profitable for both parties.
    An internship is a heck of a lot cheaper than a college course and given the internet and virtual world we live in can be taken on in a virtual setting which requires very little expense on the interns part.
    To argue that internships are only for the “rich” is ridiculous. I meet interns and past interns from all walks of life who had positive experience and agree that their internship helped them find their way in their career.
    To say that all internships should be abolished will only allow the rich and well connected to have exclusive access to jobs and professions that internships allow others to break into.

  16. Hector says:

    A few quick points:

    1. Unpaid internships might benefit some individual interns, but the practice erodes the value of labor. It has the potential to destroy entry-level jobs. Why should companies hire people as employees when they can recruit unpaid interns? How is the job market going to improve if employers don’t need paid employees?

    2. Also, what’s this nonsense about Generation Y having an “incredible sense of entitlement?” Wanting to be paid for work is “entitlement?” Okay. Fair enough. Why don’t we ask these anonymous business owners to work for free?

  17. Pingback: Grow Your Businesses On A Shoestring By Leading | Top Biz Institute Blog

  18. Pingback: Interns to the Rescue | Top Biz Institute Blog

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