When a U.S. federal judge ruled that Fox Searchlight had illegally not paid a couple of interns, people started to freak out. This is fantastic! Now all interns will be paid! Yeah, peace on earth! Prosperity for all!
Make no mistake. The law has not changed. This ruling is not shocking. The former interns won at the summary judgment phase, which means there was no courtroom drama. ("And then the boss told me to get lunch!" countered with "He volunteered! It wasn't part of his assigned duties!") It just means that the court considered what happened and said, "Well, this was patently wrong."
What has changed is people's perceptions of the law. And while it is a good thing that companies will not be able to blatantly break the law, the end result will be bad for college students.
Why? We already know that college is expensive, and that having a degree does not guarantee a job. We also know that your best chance of getting a job after getting that shiny new degree depends on having a slew of internships on your resume. Without those, you don't stand out. It's hard to convince a hiring manager that you are ready to be a financial analyst with a transcript and three summers working fast food. They want someone who has experience.
Internships have been the way people gained experience. Companies were willing to take on interns as a sort of community service as well as to get some of grunt work done for free. Though the latter has been illegal for a very long time, it's mostly ignored. Now, it can't be.
More companies will be paying for their interns: It sounds good on its face. But it also means that some companies, particularly small ones, will just skip the interns altogether. If they have to pay, then why hire someone completely inexperienced who will be there for only three months anyway? Why not hire a real person who has experience and will stick around past the training phase? Which means the number of internships available will drop.
This is not good news. Because up until now, college students were willing to exchange 20 hours a week for three to six months in return for something on their resumes and a recommendation from someone other than a professor or the lady they used to babysit for. With fewer internships available, competition for internships will increase.
And who will get the internships when there are fewer slots available? The students at the top colleges, and the ones with the most connections. Which means those who have powerful parents will be the ones getting the more limited supply of internships. This is not helpful to the average person whose mom is not a senior VP at a Fortune 100 company or whose dad doesn't own his own business.
While some are clamoring for an Intern Bill of Rights, and other interns are filing lawsuits, which prompted Reuters to declare that a wave of intern lawsuits was just beginning, I'm saying, why should we prevent students from exchanging 20 hours a week of their time for some experience and a reference? Why take that opportunity away from them?
We already allow people go go into debt to obtain degrees that are unlikely to help them be profitable. Companies aren't charging students to be interns, like colleges charge them to be students, and at the end of it, an internship will make you far more marketable than an A in any number of classes.
People don't take jobs--or internships--unless they think they will be better off than they would be without the experience. If no interns want to sign up for a free internship, the companies will rapidly learn that they have to pay. On the other hand, if people are lining up around the block for the experience, it has shown itself to have more value than just a scant paycheck.
The reason so many companies were able to get away with violating the law (because it really was so clear that Connecticut employment lawyer, Daniel Schwartz, described the ruling as "far from shocking," on Twitter) was because interns didn't want to complain because they were afraid they wouldn't get any internships, which then lowers their chance of getting a real job upon graduation. In other words, they were choosing to work for free because the benefits of doing so were greater than the benefits of working for pay in an area unrelated to their chosen fields.
What I want to see is more college students getting real world experience, not less. And the more regulation we heap on internships, the less real world experience will be available.