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The Internship Lie

March 8, 2014

By Bobbye Pyke

Many people agree that an internship is a valuable and necessary part of an individual's career development. However, if you were in college before the 1980s, chances are you never did anything called interning. So how did interning become a supposed necessity for today's job seekers?
It is not until the late 1960s that formal internships as we know them started to appear. And if it feels like an increasing number of internship opportunities are unpaid, US News says that is because they are. College students, recent graduates, and even mid-life career-changers are often willing to work without a paycheck to gain experience. However, not everyone supports this work-for-free phenomenon.
According to Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brace New Economy, "The internship system, if you can call it that, is chaotic and sprawling, and in many ways has gone off the rails; it's not working as it should." Perlin cites the recent economic recession in the United States as an explanation for the failure of the internship system. "Companies are not using internships in the way they used to in many cases, as a recruiting pipeline, as a way to bring talent into the firm. They're using them as a cheap labor force that they're cycling through without any prospect of bringing [interns] on as regular workers...Internships are displacing full-time workers in significant number."
Plenty of people defend internship practices and internships are often advertised as a way for a job seeker to gain experience and potentially land a coveted paying position. According to the National Association for Colleges and Employers, the number of students at four-year colleges who took internships increased from nine percent to more than 80 percent between 1992 and 2008. They also report that 37 percent of all unpaid interns received a job offer, compared to 35.2 percent of non-interns who received one. The assumption that an unpaid internship is a crucial step for career success actually boils down to a less than 2 percent increase in your chances of being hired.
Internshipprograms.com, a website that helps college students locate potential internships, describes the ideal characteristics of an intern as, "Fetching coffee in a single bound. Working tirelessly into the wee hours of the night. Coming to the rescue of colleagues in distress. A Super Intern's job is never done. As you dash around the office, never forget your'e under the microscope--being watched, judged, dissected. Although there are never any guarantees you'll snag a full-time offer, even if you perform up to task, there are some superhero maneuvers that will help you soar from intern to employee..."
Essentially, work harder, longer, and for less than anyone else. A company would be crazy to turn away free labor, and with a struggling economy and many recent graduates attempting to break into the job market, unpaid internships seem to be the only way.
Employers want experience. You need experience to get hired. But you need to get hired to get experience. Entry level jobs have all but disappeared and been replaced by the intern position: the same duties and basic experience, only this time without compensation or benefits.
Some interns are lucky enough to score coveted paid positions. Statistics show that half of all internships are paid, but most of these positions are extraordinarily competitive, and unsurprisingly concentrated in the financial sector. Certain internships in other industries offer small stipends, but hardly anything that is adequate to subsist on, especially in a large city. Some interns are lucky enough to receive real training in their fields and they do valuable work that is useful in the future. But many become trapped. Many bounce from internship to internship hoping to eventually land that paid position, but to no avail.
Unpaid internships become discriminatory towards those from lower income backgrounds. Very few people are capable of living without a paycheck for six months, but with an unpaid internship, that is what is expected. If you are to work harder and longer than anyone else at your company and will not be paid, how are you to pay your bills? Not every graduate is lucky enough to have the financial support of their families or thousands of dollars saved from working during college or summers. Not every unpaid intern can work harder and longer than anyone else at their company and yet still have time to get a second job that will actually pay their bills.
This lie that unpaid internships are a way of paying your dues so you can gain experience before entering the real job market is just that, a lie.

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