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Posts tagged ‘internship’

3 Massive Screw-Ups Blamed on Interns

A finger held disconcertingly close to Sideburns' faceIt’s no fun being an intern. If you’re lucky enough to get an internship that actually pays you, it’s probably chump change. It’s unlikely you’re doing the work you want to be doing. You’re almost entirely at the mercy of the company you’re working for, and they don’t have much reason to treat you as well as their normal employees.

Continually fighting the tedium of your position, avoid the temptation to editorialize, plagiarize, or to try too hard to be funny. Because if you do and it makes the company you work for look bad, you’re already in ready, aim, fire position.

Then again, saying “uh… the intern did it” is a pretty lame, cliched PR excuse. It’s entirely possible that none of these public screw-ups actually were the intern’s fault. We might want to consider the possibility that there wasn’t even an intern to begin with. But I’ll leave that to you to decide, depending on how much you trust politicians and government bureaucracies to own up to their responsibilities.

1. Plane crashes aren’t the best time for bad puns

KTVU, a local news channel in San Francisco, recently pulled a Ron Burgundy when reporting on the recent Asiana Airlines crash at the San Francisco airport. The network reported the names of the pilot and crew as a  string of cheesy, racist puns. Asiana Airlines threatened to sue. KTVU obviously needed an excuse fast. They apologized, saying they only read these names after confirming them with the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB followed up with their own excuse, saying this was all the work of a devious, rogue intern, who had been promptly fired. The airline ultimately decided to drop the lawsuit.

2. Politicians can’t keep track of what they have and haven’t said, that’s the intern’s job!

During the 2008 presidential election, a web page with a list of “McCain Family Recipes,” something that has no reason to exist apart from illustrating just how stupid our election process is, appeared on the McCain website. Under the section of recipes accredited to Cindy McCain were verbatim copies of Food Network recipes. Campaign spokesman: “The intern [responsible] has been dealt with.” In 2011, former senator from Massachusetts Scott Brown had a supposedly autobiographical section of his website lifted word-for-word from a speech written by former North Carolina senator Elizabeth Dole. Brown: “It was a summer intern that put together the site.”

3. The thousands upon thousands of tweets that come back to haunt their senders

If I had a dollar for every time something stupid was posted on Twitter… wait, let me back up… that’s far more money than I could ever spend in a thousand lifetimes. If I had a dollar for every time a company or politician followed up a stupid tweet with a “But I don’t even know how to Twitter!” type excuse, I’d be a rich, rich man. Listen, politicians, just because you don’t understand social media and your interns do, doesn’t mean your interns should be solely responsible for handling what’s said on Twitter, Facebook, etc. All that proves is that you don’t understand how powerful social media can be. Would you ask someone who was only getting paid with a handshake and recommendation to send out your press releases unapproved and unedited? Of course not. Twitter is the exact same thing, except the damage and bad press fallout occurs about 1,000 times faster.

How Are Unpaid Internships Legal?

Hands holding a sign reading "Will Work for Credits"

The further along students get in their education, and the closer they get to entering the workforce, the more the line between the two starts to blur. College athletes, for example, aren’t getting paid for their athleticism, other than the lucky ones offered scholarships. But in many cases, their hard work is still making truckloads  of money for their universities.

Internships are the tipping point between education and career. But if higher education is something that you pay to do and employment is something that you are paid to do, which of the two is an internship?

It’s a point of contention, for sure. A group of former interns recently sued the Hearst Corporation in a class action suit, claiming they were owed back-pay. The judge threw out the case, saying they didn’t meet the definition of a “class,” since the work done varied too much between individuals. But if the case had been able to play out, it would have come down to an argument over the nature of the work. Were the interns primarily there to receive instruction and experience, or were they there as a free source of labor?

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, there’s a few criteria an unpaid internship must meet to be legally acceptable:

  • It must give educational training.
  • It must be for the benefit of the intern.
  • It can’t displace regular employees.
  • It can’t give your employer a competitive advantage.
  • It isn’t a lengthy try-out for a full-time job.
  • Everybody involved has to know and agree to the fact that there’s no paycheck.

As you can see, a few of these definitions are more than a little fuzzy. (Though keep in mind the phrasing used is mine.) Every job benefits the worker on some level, even if it’s just another line you can put on a resume, so I’m not sure how even the most mind-numbing internship would fall short of that requirement. Also, every intern does work that ties back into the objectives of the company somehow, otherwise no company would hire interns. So while “displacing employees” and “competitive advantage” might be a little strong, in one way or another all interns will be doing work that someone else could be doing. That being said, these vague rules are probably about as fair as they can be, considering the already vague definition of the word “internship.”

So should companies pay for internships or not? It’s a tough question. The classic anti-unpaid argument is that unpaid internships only offer opportunities for employees financially stable enough to work for free. Therefore, if an internship is the expected entry point to a career, that career is only available to people in good socioeconomic standing.

But, fair or unfair, how is that different from any form of higher education? At least an intern doesn’t have to pay the company in anything other than time. Sure, college students can take out loans, but that just leaves them saddled with debt. Either way, isn’t the ultimate objective of both the same: to gain the experience and credentials to help launch your career?

The summer between my junior and senior year of college, I took an internship with a newspaper. It didn’t pay and I couldn’t use it for credit. Still, I’m happy I did it. It gave me a major leg-up when looking for entry-level positions after graduation. It got me my first job. But I also only did it for two and a half months. Long enough to get what I needed: experience and recommendations.

I have no doubt that there are a lot of businesses out there exploiting their interns as a source of cheap (or free) labor. But interns should keep in mind that they might be able to exploit those businesses too. Find the business that will give you experiences you can use as future leverage.

The key deciding factor should not be money, but should be variety. If the internship is just repeatedly doing a single, simple, and boring task, it’s not probably not worth doing. If the internship means you get to be shoved into a dozen different bottom-level tasks, then there’s educational value, as well as a dozen new things you can put on a resume and spin into something bigger during future interviews.

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