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Rethinking the unpaid internship

Amy Scott May 12, 2014
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At General Assembly, an education/event space in New York, 20-somethings line up to sample gourmet oatmeal with truffle oil and bacon. Representatives from the Food Network and New York Magazine’s Grub Street are on hand. The event is sponsored by the Student Intern Network, to connect college students and recent grads with people in the food media business.

Zachary Huhn, 24, founded the network to help students find those all-important internships.

“Over 60 percent of employers say that graduates are not prepared for the workforce when they graduate,” he says. “I think that students do themselves a huge disservice if they don’t go out of their way to track down and take advantage of their own internships and opportunities, because you just have to do it.”

Skyler Bouchard, a junior at New York University, has done her part. She’s racked up an impressive list of internships, at Bullett Magazine, a food website called the Daily Meal, Hearst Magazines and Entertainment Tonight.

“And now I’m at CNN,” she says.

This summer she’ll add yet another stint, at the local news channel NY1. With the exception of CNN, all of her internships have been unpaid.

Bouchard says what she learned about the business was worth it.

“If I didn’t learn any of that I wouldn’t even be able to get a paying job, so I think it all is a stepping stone to helping you get somewhere bigger,” she says.

The media business has long been a bastion of the unpaid internship, but thanks to a wave of lawsuits, maybe not for much longer. Magazine company Condé Nast—home of Vogue and the New Yorker—just settled a case. Rather than pay its interns minimum wage, the company shut the program down. Other companies have started paying, or even given their interns raises.

“I thought that it was always a little bit unfair that the media businesses or some of the higher profile internship opportunities were only available to folks whose parents could support them over the summer,” says Geoff Bartakovics, CEO of TastingTable.com, an email magazine about food and wine.

Bartakovics, who moved out of his parents’ home at the age of 16, says he could not have afforded to live in New York City and work for free. That’s one reason he’s always paid his interns at least minimum wage. But there’s a more pragmatic reason.

“We just thought that it made more sense to pay people something upfront rather than deal with the possibility that we’d have legal issues later,” Bartakovics says.

Still, the Student Intern Network’s Zachary Huhn says an unpaid opportunity is better than no opportunity. Students may just have to get creative.

“I’ve seen students crowd-fund their internships, collect donations from family and friends, work a part time job,” he says.

Plenty of college students might be considering those options this summer. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers almost two-thirds of last year’s graduating class did some kind of internship while in school. About half of them were unpaid.

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