Summer's in full swing, and no surer sign other than sweltering weather, shore traffic or the smell of a barbecue being fired up is the sight of young interns making their way into Center City office buildings. What could be more seasonal and more of a win-win proposition for all parties involved, right? The intern gets practical experience, and longtime employees get to pawn off a few menial tasks on these eager youngsters.
Not so fast! The internship may not be all its cracked up to be, according to an opinion piece in The New York Times on May 30. Called "Take This Internship and Shove It," it was written by Anya Kamenetz, a Village Voice columnist and author of Generation Debt.
Most of the young people who seek out internships, said the author, won't be starting in the mailroom "for a pittance," but will report for business "upstairs without pay." Now, Kamenetz herself was an unpaid intern at a newspaper from March 2002, her senior year in college, until several months after graduation. Like most other college kids, she took it for granted that working without pay "was the best possible preparation for success."
But Kamenetz went on to argue that the growth of unpaid internships is bad for both individual careers and the labor market as a whole.
According to the author, there are risks to the lowly intern. "First there are opportunity costs. Lost wages and living expenses are significant considerations for the two-thirds of students who need loans to get through college. Since many internships are done for credit and some even cost money for the privilege of placement overseas or on Capitol Hill, those students who must borrow to pay tuition are going further into debt for internships.
"Second, though their duties range from the menial to quasi-professional, unpaid internships are not jobs, only simulations. And fake jobs are not the best preparation for real jobs."
Long hours on your feet waiting tables may not be the most edifying type of work, but it does teach you that "work is a routine of obligation, relieved by external reward, where you contribute value to a larger enterprise. Newspapers and business magazines are full of articles expressing exasperation about how the Millennial-generation employee supposedly expects work to be exciting immediately, wears flip-flops to the office and has no taste for dues-paying. However true this stereotype may be, the spread of the artificially fun internship might very well be adding fuel to it."
Kamenetz noted that internships aren't coming to an end soon; more colleges are requiring them for graduation. But, she suggested that "research shows you will get more out of it if you find a paid one."
A 1998 survey found that "Compared to unpaid internships, paid internships are strongest on all measures of internship quality. The quality measures are also higher for those firms who intend to hire their interns."
And, she pointed out, getting hired and paid are what work is all about.