The Business of Screwing Young People

During my senior year, I was ready to start my life in advertising. Then, a professor of mine broke the news: without industry experience you’re not landing a job. And, this was before the recession.

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

Jason Potteiger I’m a Suffolk U. grad with degrees in Political Science and Advertising. I like reading both John and Douglas Adams and spending time in the mountains of New Hampshire (where I grew up). These days I call Boston home, but I have aspirations of one day working in Washington, D.C. and New Delhi, India. Subscribe to Jason's Posts via RSS 

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6 Responses to “The Business of Screwing Young People”

  1. Hannah

    So true! I can’t tell you how frustrating it was for me to try to find internships during college. I needed to work (and make money) to pay for school, so that ruled out unpaid internships. Plus, getting credit for an internship would have classified me as “overloaded” and therefore I would have had to pay money to get the credit. Such a frustrating situation, but a great post!

  2. Jessica

    This is such a well-written article, Jason.

    I am responsible for hiring and supervising an intern for our digital team at the agency where I work, and our policy changed a couple years ago so that we no longer pay them. I can’t tell you how much it bothers me that my intern is not getting paid for her hard work, especially having just been in that position a few years ago when I was in college. Unfortunately, the best I can do is make sure she has a good experience during which I don’t have her making copies and don’t other mindless work, and that I give her a nice recommendation on LinkedIn at the end of the internship.

    It seems that a lot of interns take on the position that the ROI of working an unpaid internship will work out in their favor, but that by no means makes it fair. Instead, more companies realize that they can get away with unpaid help and feed off of students’ desperation to gain real world experience. And for what? So when they graduate they can enter a shitty economy in which their chances of actually getting a job have significantly diminished.

    • Jason Potteiger

      Hen thanks for the nice comment.

      I’m glad you do right by your intern! I was lucky enough to have a few good experiences myself. I hope I get the chance to pay it forward someday — if not with money then at the very least with the type of consideration you show.

  3. Mark

    Are you looking to enter a growing field with lots of demand? If yes, you will be paid, and likely hired upon graduating if you do a good job.

    Are you looking to enter a field that is already saturated and notoriously hard to break into? If yes, you will not be paid. Now decide if you care enough about your dream to go further into debt.

    Also, it’s ridiculous that NEU has a monopoly on the state house. They have always secured placement for their students based on the extremely positive feedback surrounding their co-op program – but that’s too far.

    (Go Huskies.)


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