Why Paid Internships Matter

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 30:  Journalist Charlie Rose attends the 2012 Trophee Des Arts Gala at The Plaza Hotel on November 30
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 30: Journalist Charlie Rose attends the 2012 Trophee Des Arts Gala at The Plaza Hotel on November 30, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Fernando Leon/Getty Images)

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, former media executive Steve Cohen decries the class-action lawsuit against TV host Charlie Rose. The suit charged Rose's production company with failing to pay college interns a minimum wage. Cohen calls the suit "dumb" and the recent settlement "worse." (Some 189 former interns will receive back pay of $1,100 each.)

But here's a truly dumb idea: Let's reserve valuable internships for the wealthiest families alone, at a time when college costs continue to surge past middle-class family incomes and available aid. This is what Cohen effectively recommends.

"An internship isn't a substitute for minimum-wage work. It is an audition," Cohen writes, arguing the suit was wrong to suggest unpaid interns were really doing the jobs of low-wage workers. The interns' menial tasks -- assembling press kits and escorting guests to the elevator -- were actually quite valuable, Cohen argues. He cites his own internships during his recent law school studies -- part of which he spent copying documents. He also describes his son's unpaid magazine internship, in which he served as a "glorified messenger."

I agree with Cohen on one point: Internships, even those involving mundane tasks, provide enormous advantages. Getting to the office on time, dressing and communicating appropriately, doing grunt work with a positive attitude and learning how to make oneself valuable to the boss are hugely important lessons.

But unpaid internships add to the widening gap between the wealthy and the rest of America -- leaving talented middle-class students to flip burgers or babysit (if they can even find those jobs) while their well-heeled peers make important advances into the work world. Cohen would add internships to the exclusive array of privileges -- SAT tutors, Mandarin lessons, overseas service trips -- that upper-class students already enjoy.

I did three newspaper internships in college -- at the Chicago Southtown Economist, the Peoria Journal Star, and the Milwaukee Journal. I could not have taken these jobs if they were unpaid. I was the tenth of eleven children from the south side of Chicago and the income was my ticket through a highly regarded state university. I also won several academic scholarships and my parents gave me a few hundred dollars a month to help with room and board. I watched some of my friends who didn't have that latter advantage disappear from school, unable to afford the cost.

And this was in a quaint era long ago -- when one could work a full-time job in the summer and a part-time one during the school year, and with a little help from the parents, graduate debt-free. Had I followed the exact same path now, I'd be encumbered with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans -- another reason students need paid internships more than ever.

Moreover, my wonderful college newspaper, The Daily Illini, was an independent nonprofit that paid students the minimum wage -- so that became my part-time gig during the school year. We put out a newspaper five days a week, and my assignments included covering the Illinois state legislature. As a result, my summer internships started with mundane transcribing tasks and ended with front-page stories.

In short, the income mattered -- a lot. Three of my four grandparents came to the U.S. on a boat, and none of them went to college (one didn't make it beyond elementary school). For my family, paid internships, coupled with hard work and common sense, served as crucial building blocks to success. It disturbs me deeply to suggest that internships should be put beyond the reach of middle-class Americans -- something we've already seen happen with housing in the best public school districts and increasingly, college educations. The middle class doesn't need more ways to fall behind.

Last summer I found myself in the ironic position of subsidizing my oldest daughter, a high school student, in an unpaid internship in New York City. She did the tedious filing and organizing of the stock room -- but also sat in on a client conference call and helped managed the firm's social media. We were truly fortunate to have the means to subsidize her experience.

But you will never find me on a soapbox advocating for unpaid internships. Because the concept is not only dumb -- it's un-American.