Like many of my fellow seniors, I have been spending my few hours in-between studying for midterms and pretending to still have a social life trying to line up a post-graduation internship or entry-level job. Unfortunately, for more than a few students this includes considering the dreaded unpaid internship, where experience and perhaps a few academic credits replace a paycheck. However, these positions could be a thing of the past as industries that have relied on the grunt work of unpaid interns for years are reconsidering their payroll practices. Last summer, a Federal District Court of Manhattan ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures unlawfully did not pay two interns who worked on the production of the movie “Black Swan”. This decision is a strong argument against the legal loophole that allows job training to replace wages in some instances.
The first major effect of the “Black Swan” case was felt Wednesday as Condé Nast announced they were cutting their entire internship program as a result of a pending lawsuit against them. Condé Nast is a publications company that produces Vanity Fair, Vogue, The New Yorker and various other magazines. Current interns will not be affected by the change and will work through their previously established end dates. Additionally, there’s yet to be an announcement about any new entry-level or paid internship positions to fill the void left by the program’s end.
Last summer’s “Black Swan” decision brought validation and substance to much of the criticism against unpaid internships. In many programs, the façade of valuable work experience and training has been completely debunked as work days are filled with menial tasks and little interaction with industry professionals. In these instances, it seems fairly obvious that compensation is deserved. Furthermore, many critics of unpaid programs claim that these internships aren’t accessible to lower-income individuals who are unable to cover costs while working long hours with no income. Though many young professionals have accepted unpaid internships as a necessary evil to the start of one’s career, the “Black Swan” decision represents the first major legal victory against these programs.
While the initial reception to the decision from young professionals was very positive, the reaction of Condé Nast could be a sobering sign of things to come. Industries, most notably media and publications companies, have begun to rely on this low-cost labor and are currently not structured to offer their many interns competitive wages. Many see this as big companies taking advantage of the competitive nature of new hire programs — which required extensive work experience — and forcing students to accept these unpaid positions. In practice, these positions offer the ‘foot-in-the-door’ experience to numerous students and frequently end with letters of recommendation, a stronger professional network or ideally a job offer.
By forcing companies to pay all interns, firms, at a minimum, will have to cut back the number of positions offered and select individuals even more carefully — limiting opportunities even further. Alternatively, companies such as Condé Nast may decide to completely scrap internship programs entirely and potentially replace their efforts with new entry level jobs. Unfortunately, those positions, especially when paid competitively, attract more qualified individuals, including those looking for a potential career change. Those established professionals can crowd out new graduates who are still looking for their first major opportunity and trying to discover their future career. Though an unpaid internship is far from ideal, candidates are made well aware of the compensation offered during the application process and can decide for themselves if the costs are worth the potential benefits to their career. Eliminating or forcing companies to pay interns could potentially result in a major increase in applicants, including overqualified applicants, to these already competitive jobs.
While the effects of the “Black Swan” decision have only started, the battle against unpaid internships is clearly gaining momentum. Though critics argue that unpaid internships represent a significant cost to participants, the reaction of Condé Nast illustrates how their remedy could eliminate early career opportunities even further. Ideally, the “Black Swan” decision would result in all interns’ receiving pay without a change in the quantity of openings to college graduates, but this appears far from reality. In a super-competitive job market, anything that amplifies this issue is bad for young professionals.
Timothy Burroughs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.