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June 14, 2010
Pay Your Freakin’ Interns!

There. I said it. I’m talking to you advertising agencies, Web developers, magazine publishers (those that are still around), book publishers, news organizations, cable networks, PR firms, music studios, film editors, fashion designers, merchant marines, and dudes who sell lamb kabobs on the street -- it doesn’t matter. If you got interns, pay ‘em.


It comes down to this: Interns show up to work. True, they are there to learn -- by working. That means whatever they do -- online research, contribute to a teeny-tiny project, clean the refrigerator, etc. -- it somehow provides a service and benefits their employer, and that means they deserve to be paid. Using the “we offer college credit” excuse doesn’t fly. What the hell does “college credit” mean anyway? That means someone fills out a form or talks to some academic at some place of higher learning. Paperwork is exchanged, and presto! Here’s some “college credit.”


I can offer college credit. So can a pigeon. Offering “college credit” is a way of treating an adult like a child, all while washing one’s hands of the issue of non-payment, and it makes everyone supposed to feel better, like giving out gold stars to pre-schoolers.


“There, intern. You did earn something for all that fridge-cleaning time. You earned college credit. Mommy and daddy will be so proud.”


In my days of seeking internships, I often heard, “It’s just our company policy; we’ve never paid our interns.” Yeah, well, that policy is wrong, and it should be changed. The whole “working for free” concept was abolished on April 9, 1865, at the Appotomax Court House to be exact. Basically, it comes to this: If you can’t pay your interns, don’t have them. There are lots of things in life I want, but seeing that I can’t afford a fleet of 1969 Dodge Chargers in firefighter red, I’m just going to have to go without. See how that works?


Meanwhile, those who will able to secure internships will be the privileged few -- the ones who have the means to support themselves for months in a city like New York, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco, Miami or any other place where it’s expensive just to breathe. Those who have to earn money through a paying job are the ones who have it rough. Usually, they must split their time waiting tables, working retail, etc., so they can spend several hours at an office that doesn’t pay. That means less face time for one group and more for the other. It’s an unfair advantage for rich kids, who can brag that they spent the summer (cleaning out fridges) at some kick-ass company in some kick-ass city (or suburb).


How much should an intern be paid? There is no one amount that’s fair across all businesses, and finance people can answer that better than me. How about this? Something reasonable. Something that will help cover some of the intern’s cost of living. Something that doesn’t make the summer a total financial loss. That’s a lot of room for a whole lot of fairness.


I’m all for internships. It’s a great way for students to learn about a specific business or industry. In turn, interns can be a great sounding board for new ideas, to see if a communication strategy or ad campaign is clear and viewed favorably by an outside audience, especially if that audience is young and tech-savvy. Interns can be invaluable in many ways, and that means they have value and should be compensated accordingly. Besides, it’s just the right thing to do.


So do the right thing, and pay your interns.

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Brad Mislow is a New York-based ACD in both traditional and digital media. He has worked on Citibank, Toyota, AT&T, Mercedes-Benz, the U.S. Army, American Express, Hershey Foods, Unilever, DHL, Kraft Foods, Kodak, Amtrak, Miller Lite, and Post Cereals. For a look at his work and more articles like this one, go to bradmislow.com.

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