Unpaid Internships: Post Grad Edition

Lately there’s been a lot in the news about the legality of unpaid internships. Many of the articles (and their comments) focus on college students that are required to do internships as part of their degree requirements. I was required to do an internship as part of my degree and my academic department had very strict rules as to what would count. They couldn’t be “coffee and copies” internships. Our supervisor had to be willing to sit down and have one-on-one meetings with us. While my classmates and I weren’t paid, several of us were compensated with meals during working hours or small stipends to cover traveling expenses.

A lot of colleges want their students to do internships. It gives them “real world” work experience. Companies like it because they essentially get to work with someone for a bit of time and train them now and if they like the person, they can hire them in a year or two when they graduate. Some companies are a little greedy and see it as free labor. Maybe more academic programs need to have restrictions for internships like mine did just to protect the students.

But that’s not what I’m hear to talk about today. You know what the good thing about doing an internship while you are in college is? YOU ARE IN COLLEGE. You don’t have to pay back your loans yet, you’re probably still under your parents’ insurance plans, and if you play your cards right and get an internship in the same city that your school is in, you might still get to take advantage of the cushy college lifestyle – dorm rooms and dining halls. Unfortunately, too many industries are now expecting that recent graduates take unpaid (or barely paid) internship positions.

I have a friend, let’s call her Elizabeth, that majored in Art History. Real smart girl, really knew her stuff. I had to take just the basic art history course and wanted to bash my head against my desk throughout each three hour lecture. Not Elizabeth. She was fascinated. While we were in school, she did an internship at a local, but well-known, museum. She had phenomenal grades and I’m sure if Undergrad U published a class rank, she would have been the top of the class. At the end of senior year, Elizabeth started applying for museum jobs. Now, she was well aware that entry level museum jobs were not the most well-paying, but she liked what she was doing, so she didn’t worry about it (sound familiar, student affairs folk?!). Time after time, Elizabeth was turned down. From her internship at the local museum, she had some connections and found out through the grapevine that she was a great candidate and well-liked, but just didn’t have enough experience. She asked her former supervisor and several professors how she could get enough experience to qualify for an ENTRY-LEVEL position and they all told her that she would probably have to do an internship or two AFTER graduation.

Plenty of students in the more creative fields probably hear the same thing every year. I know plenty of people who have gone out there and done it – worked for free for a year or so and then landed some awesome job. How did they support themselves? They didn’t. Their parents gave them money for rent and they worked some small part time job to get some cash for other expenses. Or maybe they were close enough to a large city with a booming industry that they just lived with their parents or other relatives! The point is, it’s hard to be an unpaid intern after graduation if you don’t have the support of others – and I’m not talking emotional support. I’m talking about money. Who’s going to pay your rent or your phone bill? What about when student loan bills start rolling in six months after graduation? The world doesn’t get put on hold because you need to do an internship before you can get a job.

Unfortunately Elizabeth did not have that sort of support. Her parents passed away during her freshman year of college. Elizabeth needed money for rent and other bills. She needed a job that provided benefits – something that a part time job wouldn’t do. She took a full time office assistant position which made finding an internship really hard – many required her to work more hours than she was able to with her full time job. Elizabeth stuck it out for quite a bit, living in the expensive New York City area, hoping to get an internship at one of the many museums in the area, but never got one. She eventually returned to our college town, as the cost of living is MUCH more manageable there.

I’m sure there are tons of people out there reading this post…okay reading articles SIMILAR to this post that are wondering why Elizabeth and many other students would choose to major in something that isn’t guaranteed to lead to a lucrative career path. Clearly Elizabeth knew that she wasn’t going to have financial support after graduation, why go for something that would require an internship? My question is (and this goes beyond the creative industries) when did entry level positions become…well…non-entry level positions? Elizabeth played her cards right – she got good grades, she did an internship in college to gain experience – but at the end of the day it wasn’t enough experience. All of the museums were looking for people that had work experience after graduation. How can these new graduates get work experience when nobody will hire them because they don’t have work experience? It’s something I see happening to a lot of my friends.

More and more lawsuits are being brought against larger companies due to their use of unpaid interns. The Labor Department has guidelines for what can be “intern” work and what needs to be paid work, but I don’t think too many companies are paying attention to those – until now. I am hoping that since these stories are getting pretty widespread coverage, the culture around unpaid internships will change, making it easier for new graduates to get started in their careers.

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