Unpaid & uninvested

Sheehan Hannan

With barely a week left of classes, I’ve spent a great deal of time contemplating my experience at Case Western, where the curtains currently pull shut.

So too is the curtain slamming shut on my internship, one I’ve had the unique privilege of partaking in for about eight months and which I will be sadly departing come graduation-time. Like so many other internships, this one is uncompensated.

Rather than offering cold, hard cash for my efforts, it was billed as an educational experience—one that wouldn’t have me making coffee runs. Indeed, I can confidently say that all coffee runs I have undertaken were to satiate my own caffeine habit, not as some sort of ritualistic induction into the world of the white collar.

I can also confirm that is has been a massively education experience, one that I would put on par with the entirety of my college education. Really. It was that good.

However, the lack of compensation has stuck in the back of my mind. For years, media internships have been unpaid; interns were rewarded for their hard work with bylines in their publication, connections with editors and a healthy pat on the head for a job well done. But recently, things have changed. Many news organizations, magazines and websites offer interns a bit of money for their work. Even Vice, nobody’s favorite gonzo grab bag, began throwing a bit of green in interns’ direction.

Regrettably, my internship was not paid, as still are countless others across the media landscape. The case for pay is a fairly easy one to make: Working an internship for 20+ hours a week is akin to a part-time job, if the job is pitched as “real work” then “real money” should be involved.

But beyond the simple argument lies a more complex one. Journalism is an industry in which gender and race remain difficult issues. Women and people of color are underrepresented, something that the current unpaid intern system reinforces.

In simpler terms, unpaid internships disenfranchise those who cannot afford to take them on through an independent income. I was gifted with the immense privilege of enough cash on hand to be able to quit my part timer for an entire school year, giving me the capacity to take on such an internship. But I am the exception, not the norm. For an internship to offer truly equitable opportunities to all applicants, a wage, even at the hourly minimum rate, is a must.

In both the journalism world and elsewhere, the training grounds for white-collar professions are evaporating. Unemployment for college graduates is a very real possibility.

Internships, offering a foot in the door, are supposed to alleviate some of those worries, serving as a replacement for what were previously entry-level compensated positions.

But in exchange for their labor, unpaid interns are rewarded with college credit, a considerably less noteworthy entre into the big bad world of employment. Ostensibly, the education garnered from such an internship would consist of about three credit hours worth of material. But if my internship is supposed to be regarded as a class, am I allowed to only show up three days a week? Is my workday only 50 minutes long, with an extra two hours every now and then for homework?

Like in college football, in which schools reap millions from their athlete’s abilities with the compensation of scholarships, unpaid internships are painfully exploitive of a captive group of gifted young people. The corporate side of the equation is simple: It costs them nothing and in return they get quality work and the pick of a qualified pool of possible full time employees, all of them clamoring for relatively few positions.

The perks of the job (the educational experience garnered, the real-world abilities picked up, the connections forged) should be just that: perks. But in lieu of a wage, they are not perks. They’re payment.

I will be leaving my internship happy with the results. I have learned a great deal, had fantastic coworkers and reaffirmed that writing is indeed what I want to do with my life.
But, like most everyone else, a wad of cash changing hands with a wink and a smile would brighten my day.

Sheehan Hannan is a senior English major. He was formerly the Director of Print for The Observer and the Chairman of Media Board. His writing has also appeared in Cleveland Magazine and Inside Business Magazine. By his count, there was only a single grandma in Positively Cleveland’s tourism video.