It’s 10:00 p.m., and I’ve been on a movie set for fifteen hours. I’m cleaning up a wedding scene, throwing plates and cups into overflowing bins. I’m so exhausted I can barely function. The celebrity actors have gone home; they are always the last to arrive and the first to leave.

To recap my day as an unpaid intern in the film industry: I show up at the pick-up point at exactly 5:30 a.m. (By 5:31 I would have missed the van and had to take a $50 taxi ride to the filming location.) The day involves filming an over-the-top wedding reception scene with about a hundred extras. Mostly, I do grunt work, hauling things, cleaning up, running errands.

internship trap

At one point, I’m yelled at to go and lug chairs down the street to the set, and then yelled at by someone else for taking the chairs without permission. I celebrate lunch six hours into the day by having to watch the equipment while everyone goes to sit down and socialize (they bring me a plate of cold food about twenty minutes later). I spend the last five hours of the day shivering in an alleyway, making sure nobody comes in the back door during filming, as due to fire-safety issues we cannot lock the door.

So, it’s the end of the day, and I’m cleaning up the wedding reception. People are chucking cake slices and utensils into trash bins. I pick up dirty plates and take them over to the trash.

“What the fuck are you doing?” It’s the locations manager.

“I’m supposed to be helping you guys clean,” I stammer.

“Those plates are the Prop department’s. How many times do I have to tell you? Production assistants cannot fucking touch other departments’ property.”

“I thought we were just throwing stuff away.”

“That’s ’cuz you have no fucking clue what’s going on.”

I don’t tell him that I’m an unpaid intern, that I am not one of the other production assistants who make a measly $85 a day to endure this abuse.

“How can I help?” I ask.

“Push down the trash so we can pack more in,” he tells me.

“I thought you just said I couldn’t touch the paper plates,” I say. This legitimately confuses me.

“All of this stuff is the Prop department’s property, until it goes into the trash. Then it’s trash. So get your arms in there and pack it down.”

I have a master’s in film production from New York University. How in the world are my arms shoulder-deep in trash that I am only allowed to touch after it crosses the elusive boundary of the bin, and I am not even getting paid?

I can walk off the production set, but for some reason I don’t. Why? I honestly feel, like most unpaid interns in today’s market, that I need the experience on my resume.

But, the question is, do I?

Let’s look at some studies.

Between 2011 and 2013, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) conducted a survey that concluded that unpaid internships did not give anyone an up when it came to finding paid employment. The NACE study is discussed in an article by Jordan Weissman, “Do Unpaid Internships Lead to Jobs? Not for College Students,” published on June 19, 2013 in The Atlantic. People holding paid internships were twice as likely to find paid work as both students with unpaid internship experience and those with no internship experience. Eighty-three percent of surveyed students who had completed an unpaid internship did not receive a subsequent job offer. When it came to salary, former unpaid interns were actually offered less money than those with no internship experience.

What if we looked at this from another angle? Could the problem be that students working unpaid internships simply don’t apply themselves academically?

Intern Bridge, a consulting firm that specializes in college recruiting, runs an annual survey of intern salaries. The survey shows that as of 2013, paid an unpaid intern had about the same distribution of GPAs.

From these findings, we can conclude that unpaid interns generally don’t fare any better than non-interns in their job searches.

Do you really need to take that unpaid internship? In today’s market, many of us are so desperate to do any work, we end up doing years of unpaid work. If you feel you absolutely must work as an intern, here is some advice from a February 20, 2016 article, “How to Spot a Good Internship” in Seek. Be prepared to ask for:

  • At least the legal minimum wage in your area
  • Detailed direction on the activities you’re assigned to
  • Tasks that help you learn about the business, as well as pick up specific skills needed to function in that industry or profession
  • Exposure to a wide range of tasks, and access to experienced people who will help broaden your skills
  • A pathway to full-time employment, OR time off to attend job interviews
  • Mentoring from someone at the company
  • An evaluation at the completion of the internship

What kind of people or company ask a young person in debt to work for free? Probably ones that are in debt themselves, who also worked for free, who also have a hard time making ends meet. Financially successful industries (and bosses) just don’t need to go there.

In today’s market, many industries are financially strapped. It’s imperative now, more than ever, that we do our research and make smart choices.

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