For Condé Nast, streams of dissatisfied interns have proven to be the lawsuits that broke the camel’s back. The magazine publishing powerhouse are reportedly binning their internship schemes as of 2014, meaning that young people desperate to get their foot in the industry’s door are faced with yet another stumbling block. But have Condé Nast actually done budding interns a favour?
This time last year, I had just started an unpaid internship at a newspaper in New York. As a weekly publication, the total staff count couldn’t have been much more than 25, yet I began my placement as the seventh in a line of penniless interns fighting over who would get to fact check articles first.
The three months I spent there were thankless, and exhausting.
But they were also incredible: a once in a lifetime chance to be surrounded by people whose work excites and inspires you, and an opportunity to test your mettle. The staff were often unforgiving, and the hours (or mine at least) were punishing, but it gave me both life and career experience that I wouldn’t want to be without. Why, then, can’t I help but think this move from Condé Nast is actually a good thing for interns?
People need industry experience, sure, but what this might force companies to do is to distinguish between work experience and internships. The former should be short-term and unpaid, for newbies trying to learn the ropes, while the latter ought to source the industry’s shiniest new recruits, paying them at least the minimum wage (or counting as course credit for their studies) for their contribution to the organisation of which they are a part. Interns can, will and do add hugely to the smooth running of so many companies, and to say that their work merits no financial recompense is just wrong.
With one prestigious scheme closing in 2014, it is true that there will be less opportunities for aspiring journalists. But in all honesty, it’s probably better that we have fewer of the right chances for young people as opposed to more of the wrong ones. Calling months of unpaid labour an industry standard only serves to make journalism a more hostile and elitist environment.
The onus is really on companies to define what it is to be an intern. While some may see it as a moniker for an overqualified lackey, others believe their temporary recruits should hold the same responsibilities of the staff - and not get paid for it. This ambiguity is what has led to the stream of lawsuits, and subsequent closing, of a major scheme, and is crying out for reform. Do organisations want someone who’s a dab hand with an overloaded tea tray, or a person who is actively going to help with the daily grind?
Much anger (on social media at least) has been expressed from the pre-intern generation towards those whose legal disagreements have led to the Condé Nast programme closure, but they aren’t the ones responsible. If anything, we should be thanking those who have stood up against the farcical workplace epidemic of underpaying and overworking its interns, and attempting to establish a system that doesn’t exploit its workers by the time the next generation begins the perilous job hunt.