Steve Cohen: Minimum Wage for Interns? It Misses the Point
Yes, I did unpaid grunt work. But guess what: It was also an invaluable experience.
Source: Monday, January 7, 2013 by STEVE COHEN
Charlie Rose, the TV interview-show host, last month settled a class-action lawsuit against his production company for failing to pay college interns a minimum wage. The settlement will cost Mr. Rose’s company about $250,000—not including legal fees—and will pay 189 former interns $1,100 apiece (calculated at $110 a week for a 10-week semester). Based on New York’s $7.25 per hour minimum wage, that reflects a 15-hour workweek.
The lawsuit was dumb and the settlement worse.
Companies will now be less likely to bring on interns. That isn’t because of the incremental cost, but because it opens the door to increased regulation and meddling from labor activists. College students will lose out on important benefits, from seeing how companies really work to building important skills and gaining exposure to people who might hire them.
The plaintiffs (and their “labor advocates”) in the Rose case—and in two similar suits pending against Hearst and Fox Entertainment (whose parent, News Corp NWSA -0.95% ., owns this newspaper)—allege that interns are really doing the jobs of displaced low-wage workers. That may be partly true. Unskilled workers could clean up a TV-studio green room or escort guests to the elevator or assemble press packets—all tasks mentioned in the complaint against Mr. Rose’s company.
But the suit also argues that such chores don’t fulfill the educational purpose of an internship. On the contrary, such duties may in the long run be as beneficial to the career of a college graduate as anything learned in a classroom.
During my recent law-school studies, I took advantage of four near-full-time internships. My perspective, however, was quite different from that of my classmates and fellow interns. That is because I had 35 years of business experience—and adjunct teaching in graduate business programs—before going to law school, and my college-student son was simultaneously interning at a national magazine.
Both of us had enormously valuable internships, and we got far more from them than our organizations got from our free labor.
Make no mistake, much of what we both did was grunt work: boring, mindless, repetitious. Preparing documents as part of the discovery-turnover to opposing lawyers, I mastered the copy machine. And as a glorified messenger picking up clothing for photo shoots, my son mastered the subway system. Yet both our jobs were essential to the workings of our offices.
Were these functions educational? Well, they certainly weren’t intellectual. But by spending hours with that copy machine, I was able to see how the process could be streamlined. Trying to convince my bosses to invest in new technologies and procedures—along with making the case for the long-run return on investment—required higher-level analytic and persuasive writing skills.
Was it worth the cost of my son’s college tuition, which gave him entry to the magazine internship, to have his decision-making abilities honed by making split-second choices about whether to take the A train or the No. 3 train? Not really. But he learned some invaluable career lessons, such as that his timetable didn’t count—the magazine’s deadline did. And by making his deliveries ahead of schedule, he was invited into the actual photo shoots, where his exposure to the creative process was priceless.
My boss, a junior attorney, didn’t give me the photocopying assignments because he wanted me to figure out how to improve the work flow. He wanted the documents copied. My son’s boss didn’t ask for his creative input. And when I was a business executive who brought on interns, I can’t recall giving any of them a truly substantive—”educational”—project. However bright our interns might have been, they didn’t have sufficient understanding of the business to really add value. My colleagues and I didn’t have the time to hold their hands until they gained it.
But that is not the purpose of an internship. The most valuable purpose is exposure. Interns get to see the real work that real people do, and to see how disparate pieces come together to make an organization function.
Internships are about self-discipline, showing up on time, dressing and comporting oneself properly—conforming to the norms of the organization, not merely to the fashion of the classroom. They are about learning how to listen and observe, to be responsive and responsible.
The bosses, meanwhile, get to observe the interns and learn who volunteers, who complains, who is efficient and who is helpful to others. And those in charge—who have the power not only to hire but also to recommend graduates to other companies—see who among the interns takes advantage of being on the inside. An internship isn’t a substitute for minimum-wage work. It is an audition.
Changing internships from the exposure-audition model to a minimum-wage model may serve labor activists, but it won’t serve ambitious college students or the companies seeking them.
Mr. Cohen, a former media executive, is a recent graduate of New York Law School.