Price & Privilege of Internships

College is a safe-haven from the job market. We’re aware of the reality that faces us post-graduation so we prepare for it by making our undergraduate checklist of qualifications. Among the required and relevant qualifications is an internship.

An internship is a stepping-stone toward employment. That is the most optimistic view of it. That is why many of us, college students, choose to fetch coffee, file papers, but mostly fetch coffee; all while assuming the title of an “unpaid intern.”

The only unpaid job that is satisfying is charity, and most college students do not plan on being professional philanthropists, at least not right out of college.

The rhetoric is harsh, but the job market nourishes only the fittest. In college, we either major in what makes our parents happy or what makes us happy. But regardless of major, employment is the only alternative to our parents broaching the subject of what we should have majored in.

The intern craze is a recent development among us, Millennials. We are looking for better ways to distinguish ourselves from our peers (read: competitors). It seems like everyone has an internship or is looking for one.

Employers recognize our voracious appetite for experience and exploit this influx of naive, free labor. They overwork and under-compensate, and we let them for the sake of a prolific resume.

It is not a fair trade-off, but it is a trade-off we’re desperate to make mostly because we imagine the experience we’ll have. Regardless of the quality of experience, at least the interns get experience. It is this quantity over quality of experience that makes internships fertile ground for exploitation.

In 2010, to combat the exploitation of interns, the Department of Labor set new guidelines for unpaid internships. Internships are either an educational or a training experience and the “employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.” There it is: a federal law stating that internships are for the benefit of the interns and not the employers.

Interning in a specific field paints a portrayal of a career in that field. Getting a preview of the work can also help with deciding whether the work is something to pursue, or distance ourselves from altogether. However (and it’s a big however) we can only come to an informed decision if the internship produces hands-on experience. Internships are also not a solution to a career crisis, and can often cause students to feel even more lost in terms of their career aspirations. Because of this, many people believe their internships are a waste of time because they took relatively nothing away from the position except a nine-to-five experience and still have no idea what kind of career they would like to pursue.

Still, internships are a privilege, and at the very least give many students a chance to develop or become more aware of their marketable skills. Many students do not have the luxury of being unpaid interns, even if the experience is key or the opportunity great. Due to financial circumstances, students have to make money to support themselves, and choose to work in food service or retail in order to support themselves through school.

Unpaid internships create a feedback loop for minimum-wage jobs, mostly service jobs, that don’t help students explore their careers of choice or work toward better career opportunities. The poor compensation of minimum wage is another argument itself, but important to note that low-paying, unskilled jobs force students to work more hours detracting from the time one could spend on school or at a job of significance, say an unpaid internship. If an internship is nice enough to offer a student units for their uncompensated work, the student still has to pay for those units to be completed. “Internship for credit” is a misnomer: the students have to pay tuition for the credits and work unpaid for the internship. We’re paying for the privilege to work.

Despite this abuse, 63 percent of college seniors held internships last year. And yes, these can be positive and rewarding experiences, but more and more the positive interning experience is becoming a needle in a haystack.

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