Monday, December 11, 2006

The Last Unpaid Job

In the summer, Washington, D.C. becomes a town of interns, those lucky college students who come looking for the connections and perhaps a little experience to build a resume in anticipation of the post-college job search. However, for those returning post-college to look for a job the old meritocratic way--sending in some cover letters and resumes in response to job postings--lacking "hill experience" can be a disadvantage, lacking explicit connections, even moreso., the de facto website of Congressional job openings, is not necessarily a haven for paid work, as it mostly seems to post internships. Many people even feel compelled take such positions after college, having nonetheless earned a bachelors degree and often thousands of dollars in loans along the way.

Internships seem to be popping up everywhere nowadays to the point that the intern is the new glorified secretary. Why? Because employers love cheap labor and because they have realized that they can expect more than a solid undergraduate record and summer jobs at the local coffee shop. They can expect experience. This sets up a vicious cycle where the job applicant cannot get hired without experience but cannot get exprience without getting a job. Thus, the unpaid, often menial internship. This system undeniably favors the well-off, and these are the students who tend to fill internship spots. The numbers bear this out, according to an article by Yael Julie Fischer in Campus Progress, from earlier this year:
Most students live on a tight budget; we need cash for fun, for essentials, or for tuition. Asking us to fill our resumes by emptying our wallet seems like an awful lot to ask. A USA Today survey of unpaid interns revealed that over 60% had parents earning more than $100,000 a year. Only about 20% of all families of college students earn that much. For most students, working for free is just too expensive

In that vein, Fischer makes a worthy proposal:
Students gain a lot through internships, but they also have a lot to offer. Their skills and talents deserve recognition and there is no reason they should be exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Most employers recognize the questionable legality of unpaid internships, which is why no official statistics exist on the number of such positions. Students deserve to earn minimum wage for their work despite the glamour of the job, both because students’ skills warrant compensation and because the educational opportunity of an internship should be available to all, not just to those whose parents can bankroll them or who have the time and wherewithal to hold down other paid jobs on the side.

Universities could also ramp up their funding for the apprenticeship endeavors of their students, not that such pursuits should cut into a liberal arts education any more than they already do. Finally, I still maintain that the best education for the workforce is the liberal arts education if the student emerges with a good grasp of what s/he was taught. Of course, there are many things one learns in the workforce that cannot possibly be imparted at a university, but the ability to analyze and think critically are woefully underrated in favor of a prestigious-looking internship which may have merely involved filing and inputing data to Excel.


Chris said...

Georgetown's newspaper also had an op-ed about unpaid internships

The author, actually, kind of reminded me of you, Elaine, when I first met her.

I actually wish I had had better internships because employers do expect experience (and direct experience more and more) which is not cool, in my humble opinion.

Elaine said...

Good article. I like that she uses examples to support her argument, I agree with you. I honestly don't think it takes that much work experience before graduating to be a good entry level employee. What it takes is good judgement and the ability to think on your feet.