The controversy over unpaid internships continues to swell.
U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III in New York recently ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage and overtime laws by failing to pay interns who worked on the 2010 movie “Black Swan.” This opens up the risk of additional lawsuits, bringing intern compensation issues top of mind.
Regardless of where you stand in the debate, unpaid internships have one key benefit for young, prospective workers: they surface truths about the practices, values and economics of the respective companies and industries. The pay scale – or unwillingness to pay anything — is one of the most powerful signals of what a life immersed in that business would actually be like.
An unpaid internship may mean the industry has low margins and low salaries overall. No pay may also reflect a culture that is simply OK with taking advantage of free labor. No pay also may also signal low demand for fresh talent.
Conversely, paid internships signal the industry or business holds more opportunity, has a shortage of talent, and values compensating workers. These truths are important for young, prospective workers considering a specific line of work.
I’ve hired probably over a hundred interns over the past decade. I’ve made it a policy to pay them. Why? When you pay an intern, you achieve greater outcomes from both the employer and intern’s perspective. Paying means an intern will really focus his or her resources on important work. That sets expectations of results higher.
There’s one other big reason it’s important to pay interns. I was a marketing intern twice in my life — once paid and once unpaid, while a sophomore in college. I found the unpaid internship to be demoralizing. I now think poorly of that business and the people I worked for.
Do you pay your interns?
This essay also ran in MediaPost. Photo: Jennuine Captures.