Living in the Internship Era

Daniel Roberts

The task of finding a summer job rolls around every year, usually by March or April, and it is a burden that weighs heavily on the minds of American college students. Some teens find a job that involves only light work—scoop ice cream down the street from the family beach house, maybe babysit here and there to make pocket cash. Others challenge themselves with a more demanding post, perhaps working construction every day or waiting tables at a fancy restaurant. Still others give up completely and spend the three months watching TV on the couch, lying out at the beach or pool, and generally sponging off Mommy and Daddy for money.

Yet everyone, it seems, shares a general knowledge that at some point down the road, we will have to “get serious,” which, according to general consensus, is code for “find an internship.” Somehow, this was ingrained in us years ago. We have also been trained to understand that the point at which this “getting serious” needs to occur is right around, oh, the summer after junior year.

My summer preference has been, for the past five years, to work as a camp counselor. As far as I can tell, this position affords the best of all worlds. I get to work with kids, spend all day out on the tennis courts (which keeps me fit and tan), live away from home, and still feel like I’m working hard and earning my keep. Of course, as soon as last summer ended I knew the fun was over: my junior year was about to begin, and with it my plans of doing anything enjoyable over the summer would die.

Why the need for an internship? To get a job, of course. An internship is to getting a first job what high school community service hours were to getting into college. You need to get some under your belt in order to nab the prize you actually care about. Companies have bought into this system like never before, prompting many social commentators to call this the “Internship Era” for today’s unlucky college students, and indeed, “unlucky” is exactly what we are to find ourselves in this environment. The competition for internships has never been more grueling, and the percentage of college kids who will complete at least one before graduating has never been higher (that percentage is 78). Clearly, we have all been convinced to participate in this system. We have no choice. But the system is flawed. No, forget “flawed,” it’s downright ridiculous.

First of all, as Peter Vogt has written, “Internships are no longer optional, they’re required.” This fundamentally favors the rich. Think about it this way: let’s agree that an internship is not a “job.” An internship is an “opportunity” that forces a college kid to work his or her ass off, cooped up in some office all summer, scrambling to make photocopies and hoping to God that the adults are impressed and ultimately wooed. The vast majority of these positions are unpaid or offensively low-paying, which is laughable when one considers how hard the interns often work.

By expecting college kids to do summer internships if they have any hope of nabbing a full-time job, companies have established a standard that punishes any students who normally need to make money during the summer. Those who come from wealthy families are fine, because either their spending money during the academic year comes from their parents, or the parents promise to pay them some sort of stipend as a reward for taking an unpaid internship.

Meanwhile, those kids who rely on a legitimate summer job to provide their spending money during the year are forced to either take an unpaid internship and puzzle over how to afford their books in September, or opt out of the internship craze, knowing that it may screw them down the road when they are scrambling for a post-college job.

In addition to favoring the private-schooled, non-financial aid, privileged few, the internship system also undermines some of the most basic tenets of job hunting. It used to be that when a person applied for a job, there would be an interview during which he or she could flex their charm and demonstrate what makes them tick. Whatever it is that makes you want this job— and makes you so sure you deserve it— would come out in a face-to-face sit-down with your potential employer. Now, as soon as those scrutinizing eyes scroll down your resumé and see only one or, god forbid, zero internships listed, they write you off completely.

Where, then, is the drive to learn? To take what you’ve been given from education, to gather up your book smarts and your street smarts and apply them to something, hoping to rise to your potential? What happens if the new system relies solely on a scramble for summer internships, piling them up so as to cash them in later like chips at a casino window?

Something about this system has to change soon, or else investment banks, magazines, publishing houses, fashion design offices, and law firms everywhere are going to be filled only with recent college grads whose daddies were connected enough to get them internships back in college. Meanwhile, businesses will miss out on the overlooked, better-qualified candidates.

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