The Pulse: When internships are unpaid but richly rewarding

Posted: June 24, 2013

When a federal judge sided recently with two unpaid interns who later sought compensation, he worsened an already bleak employment picture for young Americans.

U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III ruled in favor of two men who worked on the movie Black Swan and then sued Fox Searchlight Pictures for wages. He ruled that it wasn't enough that the two interns received some benefits, "such as resumé listings, job references, and an understanding of how a production office works," because "those benefits were incidental to working in the office like any other employee and were not the result of internships intentionally structured to benefit them."

His decision came just as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that teen unemployment was at 24.5 percent in May, more than triple the national jobless rate. Teens are competing with young adults in a search for full-time jobs, and if Pauley's decision eliminates unpaid internships, there will be fewer unpaid opportunities for those who can't find paid summer positions.

That would be a shame for the likes of Joshua Belfer, Benjamin Haney, Alexandra Smith, Anthony Mazzarelli, and other talented people who have interned for me over the years without pay.

Pauley might accuse me of violating child-labor laws given that Josh first worked for me when he was entering ninth grade at what is now Barrack Hebrew Academy, née Akiba. His father used to drop him off at my radio studio or sometimes wait in the car. I knew immediately that Josh was wise and mature beyond his years. In no time, I had him archiving old radio shows and fact-checking newspaper columns.

We were together six years, giving me plenty of fodder to write my most sincere recommendation ever when he applied to Penn, from where he has since graduated and gone on to Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

Now Josh worries that forcing companies to pay all their interns could rob others of opportunities like the one he had. "I highly doubt you would have brought me on as a high school freshman if you were forced to pay me," he told me. "It would've made no sense. And thus I would have not received one of the best learning experiences of my life."

He's right: I could not have paid him - in which case we would both have missed out.

Ben Haney agrees. Ben came to me after graduating from St. Joe's Prep and stayed two summers while attending Notre Dame. He's smart, ethical, and earnest.

When Ronald Reagan lay in state at the Capitol, Ben jumped in his car and drove down I-95 to pay his respects, providing my radio audience and me with reports all along. Today he's a real estate developer and part owner of Mac's Tavern in Old City. In his spare time, he does advance work for GOP candidates. I'm hoping he'll run for office.

Like Josh, he finds the ruling ridiculous. "A lot of the relationships I've made in business and politics exist because of connections I made during the internship," he said. "In nearly every situation I encounter, I draw on my experiences."

Alexandra Smith told me she has mixed feelings about the recent ruling. Just two weeks ago, I was thrilled to see her chatting with Bill O'Reilly on television as the chairwoman of the College Republican National Committee. Years ago, she was invaluable to me when I was writing a book.

"You allowed me to participate in meetings and tasks I'm not even sure I would entrust to someone my age today," she told me. "You bet big on my competence and abilities as a teenager, and it became my number-one priority to try to exceed your expectations every time."

Alex knows a thing or two about internships: She worked in nine of them during four years at Catholic University.

"In the course of eight semesters and three summers, I only took two internships that were unpaid, because I felt that their value far outweighed whatever small compensation I could receive elsewhere," she said. "Still, both of these internships were tough decisions for me financially. I had to plan far in advance in terms of my own personal savings and contributions from family to make them happen."

Then there's "Mazz." Anthony Mazzarelli is the senior vice president of operations and deputy chief medical officer at Cooper University Health Care. But back in 2000, he was a 25-year-old medical student at Robert Wood Johnson and a law student at Penn. He wanted to intern in my law practice. I wanted him involved in radio. Our compromise? Both. Like the others, he has many memories.

"I remember the first time you had me on the air," he said. "There was a press conference about a local fire department that was getting heat for having a woman pose on a fire truck. I went to the press conference with my school backpack but asked questions along with the press corps. You were very happy with me because my questions cornered the guy a bit, and I remember the pride you had in me for pulling it off. I was hooked at that point."

Josh, Ben, Alex, and Mazz all told me they were grateful, but I was quick to disabuse them of any notion that I'm responsible for their success. After all, they came to me unsolicited, as strangers. My role was simply to channel their ambition and compensate them with the currency of experience. That served us all well.

When I asked Mazz to remind me of the span of his internship, he quickly e-mailed: "I started in the fall of 2000 or the spring of 2001. . . . As far as an end date, does it ever end? . . . None of your former interns will ever stop being your interns, nor will you stop mentoring them."

True - but now as friends and equals.


Michael Smerconish can be reached via www.smerconish.com.

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