Experience Preferred

Internships. They’re a pretty hot topic nowadays, what with the recent court cases and all. And I can’t say as I’m surprised that this controversy is hitting the fan now, when my newsfeed is consistently being bombarded with articles all about how completely and totally screwed my generation is job-wise.

The real issue is about – what else? – money. Companies – for- and non-profit alike – strapped for cash in the current economic climate realized that unpaid internships were a win-win: college kids get that oh-so-desirable “real world experience” for their resumes, and they get work done at no cost to them. The trouble is with the guidelines for internships from the US Dept. of Labor, which state that unpaid internships have to do 6 things:

  1. The training has to be educational in nature – i.e., similar to what a student might receive in school,
  2. the internship is for the benefit of the intern first and foremost,
  3. the intern isn’t displacing any other employees – they might be supplementing work, but they’re not doing anything that’s not being done by a regular paid employee,
  4. the employer providing training gets no immediate benefit from the intern’s work – and, in fact, may actually be at somewhat of a loss for it (because of time, effort, mistakes made, etc.),
  5. the intern is not entitled to a job at the end, AND
  6. both employer & intern understand that the intern is not entitled to getting paid for their time.

Let’s be frank here – a very large majority of organizations run on intern support, and there is no way all of them adhere to these written rules. I know this from experience. I’ve been working for free for one full year now, and I’m on my sixth and seventh internships – the latter of which is the first one I’ve had that is stipended (“paid” – nowhere near enough to live on, but it covers my grocery bill and a few other expenses here and there). I didn’t learn about these “guidelines” until I was on my fifth internship, and found them very…thought-provoking, at the least.

Up to now, I’ve been pretty lucky with my various positions in that either they were fantastic, positive, and highly beneficial experiences for both me and the employer, or they sucked badly enough that I wasted no time in quitting. In fact, in a strange way the “unpaid” aspect can play to your benefit – if the internship is a poor fit or just not working out, it is MUCH easier to have the talk with your employer when you can say “it’s not working, and you’re not paying me, so…PEACE.”

Recently I’ve found myself in quite a different position, one that really doesn’t adhere to many of those guidelines up there (except, maybe, number 5). Don’t worry, I won’t be suing anyone any time soon, it’s just a matter of confrontation, which is not something I particularly enjoy. It’s not quite time to go into details, but suffice it to say: I’m in a bit of a pickle.

There’s another even more interesting issue at work here: who can afford to work without pay – and how do their friends and peers see them?

It’s ironic, really, that I (or anyone) should feel guilty and spoiled for working without pay for any amount of time, but that is precisely how I’ve felt. It was one thing to do them while I was living at home – that made perfect sense. But the reaction I get when I tell people I moved to one of the most expensive places in the US for an unpaid internship is a little more difficult to play down. No, it’s not normal that I’m able to do this – just like it’s not normal to have graduated from college without loans – and that can be downright embarrassing to discuss. I see myself as very fortunate to be in the position that I’m in, and that I’m in such an oddly financially-on-top-of-things family. I don’t see myself as spoiled – but I do think that’s how others will/do see me, and that’s a difficult and complicated thing to face.

When I read this article, it was absolutely cathartic. Hell, I could’ve written it myself. This quote especially had me nodding vigorously:

…I can’t even count the number of times people told me “it’s ridiculous that your parents are just letting you live in the city and make no money.” But was it ridiculous? In today’s world you’re expected to graduate with internship experience and if my parents decided to spend their hard-earned money paying for me to live in NYC and reach my dreams, was it wrong for me to take that opportunity? Should I have spent my summer waitressing instead? I don’t want to come off like a whiny bitch, but I want some answers on why I should feel bad that my family can afford this. Isn’t complaining about unpaid internships the same as complaining to a friend when her family goes on a week long resort vacation?

Furthermore, internships are becoming increasingly expected – I can’t tell you how many position descriptions I’ve read that say “previous experience in _____________ preferred.” That really pisses me off. You’re not paying me, but you expect me to have experience? WHY DO YOU THINK I’M APPLYING FOR AN INTERNSHIP? That, to me, just screams “fun with exploitation.” So if you oversee interns and you’re reading this, take note – nothing makes you look more like an ass than those 2 little words, “experience preferred.”

So if internships are so problematic, why bother? I could’ve gone to grad school. I could’ve spent a year teaching English in another country. I could’ve chosen a dozen other paths…but I didn’t. First of all, I kind of fell onto this path without realizing it. When I was planning to attend culinary school, getting food prep experience was an entry requirement, so that was my first step. Then my entire post-grad summer fell apart, and I was just looking for things to do; volunteering sounded good, and then I learned about internships, and boom! here I am. And you know what?

It’s been pretty awesome. I have learned SO MUCH in the last year – everything from social media best practices for non-profits, to how to recognize when it’s time to quit a job. These experiences have been more valuable than any advanced degree I could’ve pursued, and quite frankly have given me more clarity on what I want to do with my life than I could have found in any classroom. I am so, so grateful that I’ve been able to do this for the past year – it has been beyond worth the cost.

BUT – and there’s always a but – I’m kinda done working for free. I am coming to realize that all this experience has paid off, and I am incredibly well-prepared to start a real job. I’m young, have lots of energy to put into my work, have tons of ideas, and yet all that fancy book-learnin’ I got in college is still fresh in my memory. I really think there should be more recognition of the psychological toll of working for free on employers’ parts. To all my fellow interns out there, just remember: it’s a two-way street. Yes, you want experience – but they also want the free labor. The second you stop getting something out of the experience, whether it’s knowledge, connections, or skills, you need to rethink your time there. I suggest frequent check-ins with your supervisor to reevaluate your goals as well as theirs. Ask questions. Write things down. Go to the weekly staff meeting. Be proactive and do as much as you can on your part to get an amazing experience, but be objective – if you want to learn more about event planning, or marketing, or research – speak up. If they’re excited and open to getting you the experience you want, you’re in the right place. If they frown, mumble, throw more of the same work at you – reconsider your position there. I think Confucius said it right:

Were/are you an intern? Paid or unpaid? What has your experience been like?

[Note: all photo sources are linked to the photo itself; click for the original. None of the above images are mine.]


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