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Colleges Suddenly Realize Their Graduates Should Be Employed


It was the shot heard around the office for unpaid interns. Last week a federal judge ruled against Fox Searchlight Pictures for violating labor laws by using unpaid interns on the film “Black Swan.” Two days later, two former New Yorker and W Magazine interns brought a suit against Condé Nast Publications for similar infractions. On Monday, Warner Music Group and Atlantic Records also came under fire. Experts are already predicting that the floodgates are opening for many more such suits.

But colleges might stem the flow, as many of them are now starting to pick up the tab. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Schools have long granted stipends for stints in nonprofits and the arts, where unpaid labor is common, but now they are paying the way for students to work at profit-making enterprises, including a New York money-management firm, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm and even a General Motors Co. GM -3.03% plant.

The question of unpaid internships is more complicated than it seems. Yes, it’s troubling that young people are expected to work for no pay. Unpaid internships also tend to benefit those with parents wealthy enough to subsidize them. But many of these positions also allow students to gain the skills and connections necessary for future employment—especially in industries that may not be able to accommodate beginner workers who require a good deal of training and investment. For many professional careers, an unpaid internship is often the first rung on the ladder. Eliminating the practice altogether could make it harder for many young people to find paying work.

And now is a good time for universities to make a move. With tuition soaring while job prospects stagnate, the higher education industry has come under increasing pressure to prove to students and their parents that its degrees are worth the price. Those colleges footing the bill for internships are financing opportunities for students to enhance their skills, knowledge, and chances for gainful employment. If schools spend some of the money that otherwise would have gone toward administrators and fancy amenities on programs that could give students a leg up in the job market, they can make a much stronger case for their own value. It’s a smart move, both for the colleges and the students they help.

[Mortar boards image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Corlyss

    Call me cynical, but I suspect if the studio in question had been owned by Oliver Stone and not Fox, the judge would have rendered a very different decision. I expect Fox to appeal [Chris Petrikin, a spokesman for 20th Century Fox, said: “We are very disappointed with the court’s rulings. We believe they are erroneous, and will seek to have them reversed.”]. I question the ability of the judge to assess accurately or adequately the “educational” environment of crap-for-brains teenaged student. At that age, everything is an educational experience. As long as it can be established as long-standing industry practice and not a novel development to skirt tight post-Meltdown economic constraints, I predict that Fox prevails in the end.

  • three_chord_sloth

    “For many professional careers, an unpaid internship is often the first
    rung on the ladder. Eliminating the practice altogether could make it
    harder for many young people to find paying work.”

    No, it won’t. Even without interns, these professions will still need new blood. They will find a way to perpetuate themselves. I seriously doubt these professions will quietly age and go extinct because their current larval stage has been declared illegal.

    They will find the newcomers they need, and the young will find their way to that door.

  • Andrew Allison

    Just what was it that compelled the interns to take an unpaid position? Could it have been the calculation that it would lead to a better-paid job than otherwise?

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