During the Middle Ages, craftsmen routinely employed young people as an inexpensive form of labor in exchange for food, lodging and formal training in a trade. Perhaps today’s interns don’t work for food, but it surely can feel as though we’ve returned to medieval times when it comes to the role of the apprenticeship, now known as the unpaid internship, in preparing new graduates for their futures.
I recently read a piece by Susan H. Greenberg in The New York Times that highlights the absurdity of intense competition for jobs that don’t pay. Full disclosure: I’m the mother of two Millennials who have participated in various internships and summer jobs. We’ve gone the camp counselor route, held the internship-in-a-field-of-interest that paid nothing but a “transportation stipend,” and experienced the exhilaration of internships in the medical device industry that paid handsomely and led to a full-time position. Further disclosure: At Buchanan Public Relations we pay our interns well and offer them solid on-the-job training that complements what they’ve learned in the classroom.
But what about unpaid internships? Are they exploitative? Do they favor the financially secure student whose parents can pay for housing, transportation and yes, food? Or, do they provide legitimate experience in a profession that helps a young person determine if it’s for her? Does an unpaid internship help a student launch his career, even as student loans loom large? In short, are these “opportunities” worth it?
A recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers would have us believe they are not. The survey results revealed that hiring rates for those who had participated in unpaid internships (37%) were nearly the same as those who had not completed any internship at all (35%).
If this is true, then why have unpaid internships become de rigueur – and competitive? Perhaps the answer lies with the economy, stupid. Indeed, it has recovered substantially since the dark days of the late 2000s. But while we were suffering the depths of recession, simple supply and demand created a situation in which employers could call the shots. And now that the beast has been fed, there’s no appetite for going back to the way things were. No more hiring recent college grads (many of whom would have spent their summers as lifeguards) for entry-level positions that provided training and the ever-so-nice-to-have benefits. Sigh.
I’m not sure, though, that there’s any one answer. The willingness to work without pay surely varies from student to student, and depends a lot on unique financial circumstances and particular career interests. Unpaid internships can pay off. But to the students out there who think they must supply free labor in exchange for learning a craft, I say don’t sell yourselves short. You’ll figure out soon enough that your career will take you in many unexpected directions, so the real goal should be to learn to be flexible, open-minded, and confident. Consider that if you spend your summer working as a nanny, you’ll pick up those skills – and a paycheck, too!