• By: Jessica Faust | Date: Apr 10 2012

There’s been a lot of discussion in small business circles about whether or not interns need to be paid for the work they are doing. The concern is that companies are “hiring” unpaid interns to do work that should be done by paid assistants. That an unpaid internship should be a learning experience. And I agree. I agree with much of what’s being said. What I have concerns about, however, is what’s defined as “learning.”

When one gets a job in publishing you usually start out as an assistant of some kind, whether an agent assistant, an editorial assistant, publicity, etc. As an assistant you aren’t expected to know the ins and outs of publishing, although some knowledge can be to your credit, but you are expected to do a whole bunch of menial tasks. As an editorial assistant I was in charge of all the filing. Lots and lots of filing, and my boss didn’t check the files. It was my job to find a paper for her whenever she needed it, and quickly. I was also in charge of the Science Fiction library, which meant lugging boxes of books in and out of a small windowless room every month to stack, sort and rearrange, to make sure we had enough copies of each author and to find the space for them on the ever-crowded shelves. I spent a great deal of time faxing, collecting faxes, making photocopies, fixing the copy machine and sometimes, yes sometimes, I had to do things like run out for a cup of coffee or clean out the disgusting office refrigerator. Was it glamorous? No. Was it a job I loved? Absolutely. I also got to read and edit yet-to-be published books, meet famous authors, get autographed books for Christmas presents, and I got to read and discover new authors. It was my dream job, or would be once I jumped through the hoops.

These are exactly the kinds of jobs (minus running for coffee and cleaning out the fridge) I ask both my assistant and my interns to do. Because what I’ve sadly discovered is that learning how to file is something that a lot of interns need. I’m amazed at the number of people who have come through the BookEnds doors who don’t seem to have a basic grasp of how to file or how to fax (or figure out for themselves how to fax) or even how to mail a package. I wonder if doing these tasks would be considered learning, because in my mind they should be.

I remember Kim telling me once about her own internship at Berkley and how one of her tasks was cleaning out and reorganizing all of the files of a huge NYT bestselling author. She said she loved it. She got to read revision letters and contracts and correspondence between the author and her editor. She learned a ton about the process of publishing. And that’s something I’ve noticed with my interns. Filing is a huge part of this job and some of them will pull up a chair and spend the day filing and reading the files and papers and, yes, learning. Others just seem to chuck the files in any folder (and yes, this has caused us many a headache) and not bothered to use the experience to learn.

Another job I often give the interns is reading. We ask the interns to do a great deal of reading and write readers reports, and I think all of us make an effort to give feedback on the reports and show the intern how to write a stronger and better report (something they’ll need to do when applying for any editorial job). What they do with that is up to them. They can learn from the feedback we give them or ignore it. Again, I’m amazed by how many ignore it.

I also ask interns to review contracts for me. These are typically contracts I’ve already reviewed and negotiated, but now I want a second set of eyes to compare it to the one I negotiated and make sure every “i” is dotted, “t” is crossed, and comma is in its place. Let’s face it, for any of you who have ever read a publishing contract, there is a lot of “stuff” in that stack of papers, and yet I’m amazed by how few interns have ever asked me questions about the contract, even when I ask if they have any questions. Isn’t this a huge opportunity to learn?

An internship is not like school. No matter whether you’re paid or not you’re not going to get written assignments, papers and tests. You’re going to be given tasks that will help the agency or business move forward. How you decide to learn from these tasks is up to you. In my mind, it’s a first step to adulthood and a career outside of school. If you want success in this world you have to be bold enough to take the steps to find it and to participate in it. That’s how you’re going to learn. Two of the assistants I’ve had were interns. They were the kind who read the files, asked the questions and made themselves invaluable in their short time here. In fact, the interns who learned the most were always the ones who spoke up and showed a desire to learn more. We were always happy to give them more to learn from.


17 responses to “Interns”

  1. People should take everything in life as a chance to learn, internship or not. I'd go for it if I got hired as an intern assistant or whatever 😀 It would be awesome just to be in the business!

  2. Avatar Holly B. says:

    My internship (and subsequest assistant position) at BookEnds was invaluable. It was a crash course in publishing, and I realized after a few short months that this was the business I HAD to be in. I had wonderful mentors in Jessica, Kim and Jacky, who all made me feel that my opinions were important and made me excited about this industry. Yes, I filed. A lot. Guess what? As an Associate Editor with my own list of authors, I still file. A lot. 🙂 If I hadn't had the incredible opportunity of being an intern, I wouldn't be where I am today, in what I can only describe as the job I was put on this earth to do. Thank you.

  3. Really interesting post; I've written about these issues from the perspective of students and your approach strikes me as extremely sensible.

    Just for context: Where this gets really, really muddy from a legal perspective is that in the Federal Guidelines for Internships based on the Fair Labor Standards Act, there are six legal criteria for determining whether a position can qualify as an unpaid internship. Most of the criteria seems fine but the HUGE issue is number 4, which reads:

    "The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded."

    Now, to me, this is absolutely insane. I think the determination should be based on whether the student is benefiting and that it's silly to have a line REQUIRING that the employer not derive ANY immediate advantage from the activities of the intern. But that's what the guidelines say, and that's why there are (and will be many, many more) lawsuits over it.

    Great blog post, as usual, btw.

  4. Avatar Rachel says:

    I only take jobs I know I can learn something from. What's the point of doing a job you're going to hate?
    Here's the secret though. You can learn something from EVERY job, even if it's just that this job isn't right for you.

  5. Avatar Lauren B. says:

    Something else to keep in mind – unpaid interns are often not just exchanging free labor for experience, if they are receiving academic credit they are actually *paying* to be there, and thus at a net financial (but not overall) loss.

    So all the more reason to take full advantage of the learning experience the internship has to offer (as long as the internship is holding up its end of the bargain).

  6. Depending on the number of hours, it's sometimes hard to do an internship. I know I was basically supporting myself through college – and I was a full-time student, too. I would not have been able to afford to give up an entire summer to work for free, no matter how much I learned from the experience.

    But, as Lauren pointed out, I could see myself interning for free if it were treated like a class – maybe a few hours or so per week with college credit. I think that type of experience I could learn from.

    As I'm typing this comment, I just remembered something. I did do an internship during my last year in college, but, I believe it was only one or 2 mornings per week, but, I got college credit, had to write a paper, and I was unpaid.

    So, it all depends upon the situation, I reckon. My internship was in real estate appraisal – I never even entered that field, BTW!

  7. At the allied health college where I serve as Dean, all our students do unpaid externships. It's what's expected, and everybody knows it from the start. Many–and in some programs most–of the unpaid practica experiences result in paid job opportunities. There is absolutely no way to replicate that kind of learning in a classroom environment. None.

    That said, I feel Jessica's pain. It's amazing to me how a student who's been studying a field in the classroom would go out to the externship site and NOT learn a bucketful from it. But some do. Sometimes they're too intimidated to ask questions. Sometimes they don't think about it at the time. And sometimes, some truly honestly don't care enough, and those are the times that make me sad.

    I frequently get the whole "that's not what I should be doing as an extern" argument. I even had a student bring pictures on her cell phone of a box of files she'd had to move from one office to another. She looked horrified when both I and her program director smiled and asked what she'd learned from the experience. Granted, if ALL a medical assistant student did was move boxes, I'd have a problem with the site. But you're exactly right–anything the professionals are expected to do, the interns should expect to be invited to learn from as well.

    So saith the Dean. (ever notice that the Dean is the only guy on campus with a four-letter word as a title? And it even rhymes with 'mean'.)

  8. @The Other Stephen King: I totally get what you're saying logically but I think it would be pretty hard to argue that having an unpaid intern move boxes doesn't constitute a violation of the Federal Guidelines for Internships based on the Fair Labor Standards Act.

    The issue isn't that the intern isn't learning something while doing that; it's that the employer benefits from it and the guidelines are very clear that employers cannot derive any immediate benefits from tasks performed by unpaid interns.

    I'm not defending those rules.

  9. Avatar jfaust says:

    It's an odd discussion really, because I can't imagine a task I could have my interns do that I wouldn't benefit from. I suppose I could simply allow them to sit there and take things in, but that doesn't really make sense either.

    And the quote, "The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded." This seems contradictory. I can't imagine operations being impeded unless I was potentially getting a benefit.

    Sigh 🙂

  10. @BookendsLLC

    I swear I have a life; but this issue really gets me going and I could argue about it all day.

    I agree with you 100%. Under the current guidelines–assuming they're enforced or at least assuming lawyers are willing to sue on behalf of disgruntled former interns, and lawyers appear willing to do that (see, for instance, the Harper's Bazaar Lawsuit–I personally think that employers would have to be completely out of their minds to offer unpaid internships. I think that's the goal of a lot of people who are behind this stuff.

    What they don't get is that without unpaid internships, in many fields, it will be impossible for young people to gain any kind of experience at all. There are enough experienced, unemployed people out there that if the only way to have interns is to pay them, I think most employers would rather just hire part-time older people. They have better attitudes than us 20-somethings and they use fewer emoticons :/ . . . And that leaves college students and recent grads sitting at home watching Jersey Shore whining about how hard it is to get a foot in the door, but I guess we'll have won some kind of moral victory against the evils of unpaid internships. ::Sigh::

  11. Avatar Lauren B. says:

    To play devil's advocate, and fully acknowledging that this is extremely gray territory:

    Don't these rules exist to protect workers from exploitation?

    Would you pull an adult off the street and say "Hey, I can't pay you, but how would you like to be an assistant around my office on a volunteer basis? You'll get a foot in the door. I promise it won't be all scrubbing toilets, and if you do a good job maybe someday I'll hire you." Maybe you would, and maybe someone would take you up on it, but this isn't a barter economy and most people can't afford to work for free.

    Internships are unique in that they are overwhelmingly held by students and therefore are educational in nature. As I noted before, many unpaid interns are paying their schools thousands of dollars to receive the credits in return, so for some kids there is a difference in attitude between being paid to do menial work vs. feeling like you're paying for the privilege of doing menial work.

    I DO think there is absolutely value to be had for both an employer and a trainee in an internship dynamic, and I'm not discounting the necessity and value of starting from the bottom. But I also see why the DoL regulations exist.

  12. Avatar green_knight says:

    I am not now speaking about internship that last an afternoon a week or a couple of weeks, but longterm unpaid internships – a month, two, three, six (!) – are pure poison to the industry, however nice they might be for the employer. The people who can afford to take those internships are people who are already privileged – they, or their parents, can pay their rent and bills; they are not forced to take a crappy job to simply survive while they keep appyling for the jobs they *want* to have.

    A de-facto requirement for candidates to have unpaid internships under their belt is a de-facto selection in favour of candidates based on their economic status. And that, to me, feels like a very bad idea.

  13. Avatar jfaust says:

    Lauren B and Green Knight. I think you both have valid points and I agree about exploiting the worker and I assume those who are suing have very valid reasons for doing so. The problem is that these new stricter guidelines are going to scare off a lot of companies from having interns.

    BookEnds has always been flexible with our interns. We realize they are working for no pay and have other jobs and we allow for that. Never do we have an intern work 40 hours a week. Usually they are only here 2 days a week and, as I said, we make a concerted effort to instruct them and give guidance. That being said, are we benefiting from the work they do and will we be able to continue? That's something I'm debating.

    Thanks for the discussion.

  14. Avatar Anonymous says:

    The guidelines actually have scared off at least some publishers into eliminating (or deciding against opening) intern/extern positions. I am an intellectual property and business attorney, and several of my publishing clients have come to me in the past 2 years with questions about this very issue. In every case but one, the publisher decided to eliminate or opt against establishing internships because of the need to comply with federal guidelines and state laws regulating what an intern can and cannot do.

    Note that in at least two cases, we're talking about situations where the potential intern had approached the publisher, knew what (s)he was offering, and OFFERED to work for free, to do absolutely anything, just to get experience in the industry. The publishers refused anyway. We just couldn't find a way through the legal thicket without costing the publisher (these are small houses) more than they had the capacity to pay and/or more risk than they were willing to take on.

    I completely understand – and agree with – the need to protect unpaid workers against exploitation. That said, this isn't a hypothetical "might scare them off." I'm posting anonymously because I don't want to reveal anything about the clients whose identity I'm protecting. That said…the chilling effect is very real.

    Unfortunately, internships DO provide great experience for those interested in taking advantage of it – and I, too, am amazed (but not surprised) to hear that not everyone realizes the good fortune involved in having the opportunity to ask questions and really learn from the chance to intern in an industry where they hope to have a career.

  15. Avatar Nick Lewandowski says:

    Interesting discussion. As someone who spent a few months as an unpaid intern (not in publishing but at a web startup) and who learned a tremendous amount in the process I would ask this: if interns weren't willing to work for free, would the business(es) hire someone to perform their tasks?In cases where the answer is yes I think the interns technically "deserve" to be paid.BUT at the end of the day it's the individual intern who chooses whether to work for free or not. After all if every intern refused to work for free all the companies "exploiting" them would have to either make do without the extra workers or hire actual employees. Yet because of the potential career benefits of internship experience, and potential interns' different financial circumstances there will invariably be those who can and will "cross the line." So for me at least there's a difference between what's nominally "fair" in ethical terms and what's realistic given the intense competition for jobs in the industry. Unfortunately as green_knight mentioned this puts the wealthy at a distinct advantage… but honestly when DON'T the wealthy have a distinct advantage?[INSERT DISCUSSION OF INCOME INEQUALITY HERE]

  16. I use interns regularly in my company, and I would argue that yes, our business is impeded by having the intern present.

    Every time I have to stop and explain how to do the task, that impedes my business.

    Every time I answer questions from the intern instead of using that time to call a client, that impedes my business.

    Every time I make a job for the intern to do, instead of just doing it faster myself or delegating to someone who normally does that job, that impedes the business. And I have to double check their work, which impedes the business.

    We pay our interns a stipend of $100/week plus housing and some food, so it's actually a pretty cushy deal. That said, we're not in New York. I can put them in my guest room (In the Midwest, we have extra places in our homes that are like closets, only larger. A closet is a small room used to store clothes by people who don't live in New York).

    I don't ask the interns to do anything I wouldn't do, and the whole company loads equipment and carries things.

    I'd be curious to check with our attorney, but I'd argue that "moving boxes" type jobs are a benefit to the intern when they are something that someone else in the office would otherwise do – the intern is learning that facet of the job. I'd even argue that "lowest seniority fetches the coffee" is a valuable lesson about hierarchy.

    That said, I do hear horror stories about internships that are slave labor, and I think it's the employer's job to make it a real learning experience, and the student's job to investigate and ask questions so that they know what they're signing up for.

    I'm eager to hear more about how the law functions as cases come up.

  17. Avatar Sky says:

    I just finished looking through various postings for internships and it was disheartening. If I want to get into publishing, I need experience. If I want experience, I need an internship. However, as a single mom, working for free simply is not possible.

    And even if I could make it happen (getting family to help me with my son and other costs), quite a few of the internship postings that I reviewed wanted someone with 2-3 years of publishing industry experience. So exactly how do I get publishing industry experience while I'm in college so that I can get an internship, which is what is SUPPOSED to be providing me the publishing industry experience that I need for future job searches?

    It's almost like the internship positions are skewed towards wealthy traditional college students: Early 20s with no children or other responsibilities, who have a large source of income available through other means.

    So how is a 30-something single mom who decided to finally go back to college to pursue her dream and take control of her life suppose to break into the industry? I actually would love some feedback on that question, as well as the types of internship postings that I've come across that require industry experience – for an internship.

    Finally, my take on the blog post itself is that yes, interns should be paid. By paying interns, publishers and literary agencies are opening the doors to a wider range of candidates. Candidates that might actually know how to mail a package or work a fax machine. Candidates who are "non-traditional" that have something traditional college students don't have – more life experience. Life experience can often bring passion and drive to a position that "Oh hey, I can get college credit" could never do.

    (And I know that a response may actually be unlikely given that the agency has shut down the blog, but I just came across this post today from another blog. Still, I'm always hopeful.)