We're deep into the load-in of our first show at Dorset Theatre Festival (a production of Theresa Rebeck's The Scene). As is often is the case, it's a bit of a push to make it to focus and tech, and I find myself a little tense, a little anxious, and expecting way to much of myself and my staff in too little time.

I've got a fantastic staff: my ATD, Aaron, is level-headed, talented, and hard-working. The staff carpenter, Amanda, is also very skilled, and both have great attitudes. In addition to these two staff members, I have two (and a half) interns in the shop, Bill, Ian, and Glenn. (I say Glenn is a half-intern because he's is a combination sound/carpentry intern, so sometimes we lose him to audio business.) They also have great attitudes and work hard. All of them have pulled figurative rabbits out of their hats as we've completed the first set in a mere 8 days or so of construction. (It's hard to believe our first day of actual work was last Wednesday!) I couldn't be happier with my shop this summer.

I had a moment yesterday, though, that I'm not entirely proud of: two of the interns were completing a task on stage--something I had assumed would happen pretty quickly--and it was taking them longer than I wanted. I snapped a bit at Amanda that I need things to be done quickly and done correctly. Which, of course, is true. But also a bit unfair. Why? Well, after all: Bill and Ian and Glenn are interns. They aren't staff. And as much as they perform like staff much of the time, I have to remember that they aren't--they are here to learn, to experience the fun of summer theatre, and to grow.

The Fair Labor Standards Act--the law which provides for a minimum wage and for overtime for certain categories of workers--has a specific definition for "intern" (a category not subject to minimum wage and overtime, as it is an educational opportunity, not employment). According to the U.S. Department of Labor website, that definition is as follows:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

All six of these conditions must be met in order for the position to qualify as an internship.

It can be easy, in the crush of priorities, to want things to happen quickly; to feel the pressure to complete the job, and to be confounded by the speed at which a crew works. Interns complicate this situation, because we almost always want them to function like lesser-paid--sometimes "free"--labor. But they can't, and they shouldn't.

On days like yesterday, I have to remind myself of that fact: of the fact that interns are here for their benefit more than they are here for mine. It helps to remember, especially, the fourth condition of the definition of internship: "the employer...derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded." I try, during the crazy times, to almost repeat it as a mantra: "they're supposed to make it harder; they're supposed to make it harder..."

It's the intern paradox: we've got all these working bodies! They should be making it faster, better, easier! But that's faulty thinking: if I'm doing my job correctly--if I'm providing training opportunities for these interns--then they really should be making my job harder and slower. And that can be frustrating to be sure. But that's the way it should be.

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Comment by Kevin (GoMusicals.com) Frei on June 16, 2013 at 11:37pm

Great article, Rich!

You are right to think seriously about those criteria outlined by the DOL. As you can see, they are sufficiently vague that the legality of many internships is a matter of opinion. This is why large corporations tend to run their internships in conjunction with colleges that offer credit; it's a bright-line way to make sure they are compliant. Smaller companies offer these internships at their own risk, though fortunately the DOL doesn't seem to police it too aggressively.

It's nice of you to consider the feelings of your interns, recognizing that they are green and working for little or no pay. And since unpaid interns can always quit or leave you a bad review if you abuse them, it's important to compensate them in fun and extra training.

However, I'd argue that work is experience; doing the job is training. Maybe these interns came to work for you to have fun and get special hands-on training, but maybe they came to get the real-world experience that will prepare them for the next, paid gig. You could have hired a professional, but you needed to save money so you hired interns instead. No they won't be as fast or skilled as more seasoned pros, but you need the cheap labor and they need the experience, so it's win-win.

Your post caught my attention because there was recently an article in NY Times about internships by (the economically illiterate) Ross Perlin, who wrote a book on the subject. I'm glad you take a more enlightened approach than he does by recognizing that not all compensation is monetary, and as long as nobody has a gun to their head the arrangement should be presumed mutually beneficial.

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