Once a clever way to add value to your resume, internships have become a de facto requirement for any graduate hoping to find a job. The New York Times cites a shocking statistic from the National Association of Colleges and Employers that between 1992 and 2008, the number of students who’d had internships grew from 17 percent to 50 percent. And, though internships and “off-campus experiences” are readily available to in greater number and variety than ever before, the experience has commercialized and commoditized.
Programs such as The Washington Center (TWC), in Washington, D.C., purport to help college students land valuable, high profile internships in D.C. and London. They guarantee placement (somewhere), hold weekly seminars, provide housing and even give course credit. Sounds pretty sweet. But, these services come with a hefty price tag, and you may have no choice but to pay.
Organizations like TWC have exclusive contracts with both companies and public institutions that offer internships, and force students to pay their steep prices (often as high as full tuition at their home institutions) for the privilege of working their summers away for free.
These days, jobs that were once open to intrepid young students are increasingly moving behind the lock and key of big education.
And worst of all, colleges and universities are going along with these programs in lock step. Professors, dubbed program ambassadors, are often given special perks and teaching gigs in exchange for student recruitment quotas. Schools like Suffolk University frequently allow representatives to interrupt classes for presentations to students—a privilege rarely open even to on-campus organizations.
Other universities, like Northeastern, are cutting out the middle man altogether and locking up internship programs just for themselves. For a student to even apply to work in the Press Office of the Massachusetts State House, they must first be enrolled as a student at Northeastern. Sorry to every other student in Boston, but the State House gig is owned by NEU.
Finally, there is a fundamental problem with the internships themselves. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, you can’t work for free. As a result, unpaid interns are often offered course credit for their work. Institutions pat themselves on the back for helping these hardworking students, giving them “course credit” must be worth at least a couple thousand dollars right? Wrong.
What these companies don’t know is that colleges and universities turn around and charge students thousands of dollars for the privilege of working these internships. The only thing that “getting course credit” means here is that students have the opportunity to buy that credit from their home institutions.
Talk about getting screwed with your suit pants and jacket on.
It’s very, very easy for older generations to hand down advice about working late and proving yourself. And from personal experience, this isn’t all wrong. But some things have changed. There are plenty of Millennials that get the pleasure of going to class, working an unpaid internship and then heading off to a real job to pay for both.
For many interns, even if the cost was worth their time, the ROI would still be questionable.
While some institutions offer real mentoring, many others still ask their young work horses for photocopies and coffee. Worse still, others see interns as engines for growth when they just can’t afford to hire much-needed help, creating positions that offer little learning opportunities and virtually no chance of an actual job.
There are a lot of internships out there, but finding the good ones is a very competitive game. In fact, you actually need to have previous internship experience to land some of the more competitive internships these days. Seriously.
So once you find yourself with access, the cash to pay for it and the privilege of being with the right institution (though it’s likely you’ll have to pay them anyways), make sure your grades are up and that cover letter is polished, because no matter how you slice it, it’s getting more competitive every day to work for free.
Photo by purpleslog