Unpaid internships: the new normal
December 9, 2010
CNN asks this week “Is an internship the new entry-level job?” in an article profiling several recent college grads who have racked up half a dozen or more unpaid internships apiece while looking for full-time jobs in their degree areas.
Several things trouble me here.
“I want to do what I studied, and I don’t want to settle,” says Ani Kevork, who graduated in 2009 and is in her first paid internship after six unpaid internships. Six. unpaid. internships.
I’ve written before that people who know how to be constantly learning are never confined by their schooling. Kevork seems determined to be confined by her schooling. Maybe this recession will pass and she’ll get a job in her degree area. But then what happens to her in the next downturn or the one after?
I have to wonder what she studied; the article doesn’t say. I sympathize…who doesn’t want to be actually working in the area they studied for? But I have to take issue with the outlook that taking a job that isn’t what you studied for right out of college is settling. This is something that humanities and arts majors have always had to cope with. It’s the right thing to do for some people, and may be the wrong thing for some people, but if your priority is to be self-supporting, it’s often just the way to do that. And this is only even a choice for people whose parents are able and willing to financially support them indefinitely. Anyway, she’s settling in a different way: working without getting paid.
Which is obviously the second big problem. Companies are learning that they can get away with not paying their young workers, because we’re so desperate and fearful of being left out in the cold entirely. And if companies are actually using interns to fill functions that used to be paid positions, or if an unpaid internship is really a low-level job and not primarily educational in nature, then that’s also illegal. And after six (or nine, or 15) internships, an internship is no longer serving an educational function; you’re being taken advantage of. But this is a condition that we’re being told to accept, or risk falling behind young workers who are more willing to be endlessly taken advantage of.
Thirdly, as the article notes, “it’s no longer enough to get a degree. Employers expect a certain skill set of those they consider for a job post-graduation.”
But then, shouldn’t we be asking why students aren’t learning that skill set as part of their education? If a college education was once considered sufficient preparation for an entry-level job, and is no longer, to the extent that a post-graduation internship (or six) is now considered by default to be essentially mandatory, shouldn’t we be seriously questioning both colleges and employers why a college education is no longer measuring up to real skill requirements? Not that a classroom education can or should ever be expected to bestow everything a graduate needs to learn, but most students should’ve had some significant opportunity in the course of their college years to obtain and practice real professional skills. (I’ve estimated myself that probably about 75-80% of my real college education occurred outside the classroom.) And young workers can and should be expected to pick up skills and knowledge on the job.
I’m by no means unilaterally against internships, including unpaid ones in some circumstances. There are specialized skills that are best learned in the context of the real working world. Mentoring relationships with experienced professionals can be priceless. My own one and only internship (paid) was among the most important experiences of my life and continues to pay off professionally. But when we’re talking about years’ worth of multiple unpaid internships now being the only way that many young workers can stay engaged in the labor market, and we’re expected to accept this as just the way it is now, the very concept of what an internship is supposed to be is being abused to the point of meaninglessness, along with the skills of young workers. This is something closer to acceptance of a new version of indentured servitude.
And lastly, while the article touches on the statistic that currently only 41% of Millennials have a full-time job, it doesn’t explicitly make a connection between this recent acceptance of unpaid internships in place of entry-level jobs and our generation’s supposed Peter Pan syndrome. So, for future reference (ahem, New York Times), the next time anyone’s wondering why 20-somethings can’t seem to move out on our own, get married, and start having kids, consider that maybe it’s because employers don’t seem to think that they should have to pay us.