“As to their STUDIES…It is therefore propos’d that they learn those Things that are likely to be most useful and most ornamental. Regard being had to the several Professions for which they are intended.” — Benjamin Franklin, 1749

“They learn those Things that are likely to be most useful…” What a killjoy, that Ben.

This story first appeared in the November 20, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Surely many onetime interns would consider him so, including those who last week settled a class-action suit against Condé Nast to the tune of $5.9 million. That settlement closed the door on Condé’s long tradition of the unpaid or credit internship, for decades a process that was much used for good, sometimes abused and in its last years, maligned heavily.

Most career fashion types, media or other, have likely benefited from the intern world, if not as interns themselves, then by having utilized interns either directly or indirectly for professional endeavors. At some point, the internship structure became something of an industry farm system in which aspirants could develop and strut their marketability in front of those who might be in the position to hire come graduation. What manager with an open head count didn’t love it when a former intern came immediately to mind for a position? Everybody won. Right?

Not everyone. The unpaid/credit internship has its issues. As I see it, the primary negative is not that Molly, Millie or Mike might be asked to perform some task ill-suited to her or his impressive standing at a top-20 university, or that the hours might stink. Rather, the primary negative of the unpaid/credit internship is its elitist slant. Students who must work over the summer or Christmas break, whether to contribute to their tuition or for spending money, are at a decided disadvantage. Hence, the applicant pool can swing narrow in terms of diversity, particularly over vacations. This advantage to the well-heeled is similar to the one most such interns likely garnered a few years prior when they clocked sessions with $250/hour SAT tutors. The elite bias inherent in the credit internship has always struck me as problematic, although over the years many smart, driven students who hailed from circumstances other than high privilege found ways to make it work.

The lawsuits, such as the one just settled by Condé (others have taken Hearst and Charlie Rose to task), did not seek redress of that particular socioeconomic inequity. They were filed by young adults, people of age in the eyes of the law if not of the real adults in their lives (parents and guidance counselors who may have led the lawsuit charge) to make their own life decisions, including what the heck to do with three months off from June to Labor Day. These young adults agreed to work in exchange for academic credit and perhaps a small stipend. To my knowledge, at least at Condé Nast, of which Fairchild was a part from 1999 until this past Sept. 30, none of the many interns engaged by the company was abducted and coerced into editorial servitude against his or her will.

Full disclosure: One of the two lead plaintiffs in the Condé Nast suit was an accessories intern at W when the magazine was still a sister publication to WWD, and the fashion department reported to me. I spent little time in the closets and don’t remember the young woman specifically. Were the hours long? Yes. Did we have extremely gifted senior fashion editors of the artiste personality type who were, shall we say, demanding? Yes.

Our interns came to us either through the formal Condé Nast internship program (read, the fancy one), which paid a stipend until the crash of 2008, and was ultimately abolished, or through Web postings and, before they existed, word-of-mouth and flyers on university bulletin boards. Again, all came and stayed of their own free will, as I assume interns did throughout Condé and at Hearst.

Working from that free-will premise, these lawsuits were ridiculous and disingenuous. At the risk of sounding 110 years old, they strike me as episodes in Millennial self-absorption and entitlement. I don’t mean to cast an entire generation under that cloud. We have some amazing young people on our staff, several of them recent college graduates and former interns. I stole my current rock-star assistant and former intern Kelsi Zimmerman from WWD’s accessories department when another former intern I’d just hired left literally in the still of the night just before collections season, apparently because he found keeping the complicated show schedule beneath him.

Back to the bigger picture. The suing interns took their various employers to court for being in alleged violation of federal guidelines under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which spells out six criteria governing unpaid internships.

The second criteria — which should be number one — states, “The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.” Obviously, that’s the point. But what benefits the intern?

The first criterion attempts to answer that question. Though well-intentioned, it makes little sense: “The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar training which would be given in an educational environment.”

What? If an internship is supposed to be just like school but off-site, then why not stay at school? What about taking a page out of Old Ben’s idea of teaching useful things? And what’s more useful to learn in a workplace than that the workplace exists primarily for the execution of work? In the case of young fashion media interns, that work would likely include packing, unpacking, manifesting, transcribing, researching, maybe getting up early to meet the participants in a shoot called for 6 a.m., and yes, even the occasional insulting coffee fetch.

Therein lie multiple lessons.

First, the old-fashioned eye-opener. If a student intern aspires to a fashion career, those most unappealing elements of the internship provide the reveal: This will be his or her life for the next year or so at least. If the ultimate takeaway is, “Mom’s right — business school for me,” that’s an important lesson learned. Isn’t it better to have learned it as an intern?

Speaking of business school, I don’t for a minute think the genre of intern who feels superior to the tasks at hand is limited to fashion. I know a student who procured an internship at one of the major financial houses where the interns were assigned a big end-of-summer project. This young woman and her partner chose as their topic: “How to Make the Workplace More Engaging to Millennials.” Her chance to impress and that’s what she came up with? Honey, my name is not Cedric. It is not Gypsy Rose Lee. It’s not my job to entertain you.

We all love drive. We love ambition. We love a young person’s confidence in his or her abilities. It’s every manager’s goal and responsibility to identify and develop new talent. It’s a goal and responsibility, too, to hire people who indicate interest in and respect for the job that needs to be done right now, in the case of the editorial fashion intern, transcription, fact-checking, proofreading, closet-keeping, schlepping, excuse the expression, but editorial assistance.

My guess is that the lawsuit interns were offended from the get-go by the pedestrian chores assigned them, but stuck it out expecting to get jobs post-graduation and when the jobs didn’t materialize, they fought back.

There’s another reality at work as well. Today there are so many opportunities open to students, whether at school or independently, particularly online and via social media, that a real workplace with mundane needs that may not celebrate the self must seem like a giant, dreary step backward. And everywhere fashion interns look, there are people barely older than themselves blogging, e-tailing and social networking their ways to fame, influence and increasingly, significant investment for nascent businesses. Just this week, Into the Gloss’ Emily Weiss reported an $8.4 million investment in her Glossier beauty line. You know what? Emily was once an assistant at W. That was after she was a famous intern — on “The Hills” on television — and she still wasn’t averse to packing a trunk.

Accomplishing mundane tasks efficiently and well isn’t only attractive to potential employers. It builds know-how, as Stella McCartney recently told the finalists for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. What better way to learn about clothes — their construction, how to tell one designer’s tailoring from another, what makes a luxury handbag worth the price — than by trafficking endless merch through a fashion closet? In interviews, Tom Ford never passes on the chance to note what he learned by schlepping samples for Cathy Hardwick. And what’s the line coined by Michael Kors? “Fashion is not for sissies.” Nor is it for whiners, or those who pout and sue when they don’t get their way.

The bottom line is that, though never a perfect system, the unpaid internship served a mutually beneficial purpose, one that a small but significant group of malcontents ruined for those who would have liked to follow in their footsteps. More importantly, the litigious interns delayed learning a lesson essential to all who aspire to meaningful employment. To pilfer from wise old Ben Franklin, it’s not only important to learn things likely to be useful, but to actually do things likely to be useful, even when the glamour quotient is nil. Potential employers love that.

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