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4 former interns look back at exploitation, power dynamics, and ultimate career payoff

Thanks to pop culture, we’re familiar with “intern exploitation.” But is that experience really necessary for preparing individuals for life in the real world?

4 former interns look back at exploitation, power dynamics, and ultimate career payoff
[Photos: Michael Blann/Getty Images; Marat Musabirov/iStock]

This story is part of Fast Company’s editorial package “The Intern Economy.” In the spirit of back to school and new opportunities to learn beyond the classroom, we’ve collected the personal stories of interns and managers to reveal what this step on the first rung of the career ladder means for the future of work. Click here to read all the stories in the series.

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Internships are supposed to have a simple purpose: to provide students with the experience and taste of what working in a particular industry (and in some cases, a specific role) would be like. The U.S. Department of Labor’s guidelines says an internship is supposed to provide “training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by an educational institution.”

Often, the reality is far from that description. Earlier this month, the Guardian reported that Foxconn—a supplier for Amazon and Apple—employed students from technical colleges and schools (some as young as 16) in China to make Amazon’s Alexa devices under the guise of an internship. According to that report, the company insisted that the arrangement provides “practical work experience.” However, students said that they were often expected to work overtime to meet production targets and that the factory work had no relevance to their courses. (A spokesperson for Amazon told the Guardian that they are “urgently investigating these allegations and addressing this with Foxconn.”)

Many companies regularly rely on intern labor to perform substantive work, often with very little protection in the case of abuse or exploitation. Some of these companies have been called out (and sued) for these practices, but many of these arrangements continue to exist today.

The history and evolution of the internship

The notion of “internship” was traditionally confined to medicine. As Time previously reported, the perception was that one can only become a doctor through “observing and hands-on practice.” This changed in the 1930s, when the concept of internship broadened to other fields. Eventually, this led to a series of regulations, including the Fair Labor Standards Act 1938, which governed the constraints of when a company is permitted to take on an unpaid intern.

Today, the nature of internships varies depending on the industry and company. Interns in the medical fields (which have now morphed into “residency programs”) are typically paid a minimal salary as they undertake their training. However, when it comes to politics, not-for-profit, the arts, entertainment, media, and fashion—unpaid positions are the norm. Companies often get around the legality by offering college credit. In fields like corporate law, consulting, finance, and technology—interns are often well-compensated. In many (but not all cases), these highly paid internships also provide a path to full-time positions.

“They did not want me to talk to them directly”

That path wasn’t available for Chanel Omari, radio personality and host of the podcast Chanel in the City. Before landing her first full-time gig just over 10 years ago, she spent three years interning for various TV and radio stations. Those internships entailed a lot of assistant-type work, from getting lunch and coffee, to managing calendars, and booking travels for producers and executives. “One executive told me not to stand within 10 feet of them,” Omari says. “They did not want me to talk to them directly. I remember one time someone told me that if I didn’t get the details of their lunch correctly, then I was never going to be successful in the entertainment industry.” Omari received college credits for her internship but was never compensated for her labor (though she notes that one company did sponsor her transportation costs).

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Laila Dar is five years out of college and currently works full-time in public relations, but she started her career slogging through an unpaid internship in fashion. She accepted a summer position to work in PR and marketing with an emerging jewelry brand, which was then a one-woman operation. “I thought it [would be] a really good way to get a holistic view of how she runs her company,” Dar says. “The first day was amazing. The first assignment she gave me was to drop media alerts and send pitches to different editors.” Dar was excited about the potential hands-on learning that she was able to receive, but unfortunately, everything went downhill on day two.

Dar’s former boss ended up hiring another intern who was fresh out of college. Dar was quickly relegated to personal assistant jobs while she watched her former boss invest the time and effort into training the second intern. She was ordered to list and sell her boss’s personal items on eBay, go to CVS to get change, and regularly travel to the other side of town to deposit personal checks. “She gave me vague assignments via email. I’d show up to work, I’d have some questions, but if I verbally asked her any kind of question, she would ignore me. She’d get so angry if I ‘harassed’ her with all these questions.” Like Omari, Dar was doing the internship for college credit, so she was unable to end it early when it became clear that it wasn’t working out. 

“You have to pay your dues to get ahead”

Omari believes that the abuse and exploitation that happens to interns stem, partly, from industry expectations. “You know, they say you have to pay your dues in order to get ahead in the entertainment industry,” she says. This creates a problematic narrative. “We’re so expected to be immune to those types of behaviors, [but] I don’t think you need to treat people poorly just to be there.” That said, Omari stresses that she valued the educational aspects of her internships. “I think there is a lot you can learn from getting someone coffee, doing their calendar, doing their travel arrangements, even though they’re tedious things.” she says, “I think it’s important to learn stuff from the bottom up.”

“There are obviously good companies that don’t exploit their interns, and bad ones that do”

Michael Lopez, who started his career interning in a recording studio in 2011, was also forced to confront just how cutthroat the music business can be. He saw other interns forced to clean grout off the floor, and recalled a time he had to escort a sex worker “that a famous rapper had brought in through the back door because his wife was coming through the front door.” As an intern, Lopez says, “you’re expected to do it because you’re at the bottom of the pole.” He regularly worked 16 hour days (also unpaid) and often didn’t take lunch breaks, particularly on days when a prominent celebrity was in the studio.

Lopez’s experience was unusual in that his internship did convert into a full-time job, though the company later terminated his position and hired an intern to do his job for free. However, when he was asked to reflect on his experience, Lopez says, “I don’t know if I ever felt exploited until being hired and then let go to have another intern do my job for free. I do believe that it helped a lot of people’s careers. It’s so dependent on the company. There are obviously good companies that don’t exploit their interns, and bad companies that do.”

Lopez adds, “A lot of famous producers I met started out cleaning the floors.” He simply accepted that getting an unpaid internship and working around client demands was part of what it takes to get into the music industry (which he eventually left to pursue another career). “With entertainment, it’s less of a traditional environment. You’re dealing with celebrity clients and big accounts, it’s kind of just do whatever they want,” he explains. “It’s very off-the-cuff when they’re around,” adding, “I don’t blame the studio for certain things that happened to clients. All the uncomfortable things that I might have to do, it was never the studio’s fault, it was always the client.” 

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Making internships work for both the intern and the employer

In Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, writer and linguist Ross Perlin questioned the worthiness of internships as they stand today. He writes:

“As education, they pale in comparison to our schools. As training to work, they compare unfavorably with apprenticeships. As a form of work, they are often a disappointment, and sometimes a rank injustice, failing our expectations, and violating our laws. They have come to embody the ethos that all free unstructured time should be harnessed for resume building and career development.”

He challenged the younger generation to consider opting out of the internship race altogether, saying that there are many other paths to being gainfully employed.

But despite their experiences, Omari, Dar, and Lopez remained supportive of internships. What needs to change, they said is the way that interns and companies approach them in the first place. Companies need to see the internship as a two-way arrangement, rather than a source of free labor.

Just as interns benefit from industry exposure, companies can gain a lot from hiring interns. Omari says, “If you’re grooming someone from a young age, it makes sense to promote them from within as opposed to hiring an outsider who might have experienced three years in another company but doesn’t know how [this] company works.” Now, as someone responsible for managing and hiring interns, Omari says that she doesn’t understand why many companies don’t see it that way.

Omari, Dar, and Lopez are also optimistic that the narrative around internships is slowly changing. Companies are aware if they exploit their interns, it can cost them by way of social media backlash. Jonathan Mendoza, a 2018 graduate who is currently undertaking a paid tech marketing internship, says, “You see online and in TV shows that interns are treated like, oh you’re an intern, you’re not a part of the company. You’re just temporary and you’ll be gone soon.” Mendoza maintains his internship experience was different. “All the companies have treated me like I am a full-time employee. And I found that pretty consistent across the board among my peers.”

No matter the industry, some systems and processes are necessary, says Lopez. Dar says that companies need to ask themselves what they want to get out of hiring the intern, and how they can do that in a way that provides them both value.

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Dar says that she believes that internships definitely need to have some sort of compensation component, but stops short of recommending that they are paid full-time wages. At the PR firm where she works, Dar says, “I have found that the interns who were working on a stipend [versus a salary] worked harder, really tried to hustle and prove themselves to us.” Dar says, “I want our interns to get paid, but I want them to prove to me that they can be an asset to the company.”

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About the author

Anisa is the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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