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What Parents Need to Know about Internships

images intern 3Magazine publisher Conde Nast recently announced  that it will end its internship program, perhaps not surprising  coming in the wake of a lawsuit by two former unpaid interns who claim that the work they did was very similar to that of  paid employees. The lawsuit argues that the interns should have been paid at least minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, not a summer stipend of about $550.

I asked journalism grad students about their reaction to the decision and responses varied. Many dream of working for Conde Nast magazines such as the New Yorker and Vogue and see internships, even if it means working two or three days a week unpaid, as a way to get both experience and their foot in the door. That was a sentiment shared by many former interns now working in the publishing industry in a New York Times article.  On the other hand, several students noted that unpaid internships are by their very nature economically discriminatory, eliminating from consideration students who can’t afford to work for free.  Even an unpaid internship, if it’s for credit, can actually cost the student money in a tuition fee, to say nothing of what might be much needed lost wages form a part-time job while working the internship.

Over the years, I have seen the good, the bad and the sometimes ugly of internships, through advising grads and undergrads, and hearing about their experiences. My three children have done several internships—paid and unpaid—in both the business and media worlds.

The reality of the job market today is that most of our adult children will do internships during college. Indeed if they are current liberal arts students or recent grads, internships have become the new normal as part of an undergrad education.  And, it’s not usual to become what’s dubbed a “serial” intern, doing three or four internships. Many students consider unpaid internships are as a “cost of doing business,” particularly in fields like journalism, film, theater and politics.

In a recent Washingtonian article, “The Age of the Permanent Intern,” Hannah Seligson reports on the depressing tale of internships in the nation’s capital where many toil for years in low-paid positions, hoping to position themselves for a highly competitive staff jobs.  The piece begins by recounting the experience of “Kate,” a 25-year-old, Ivy League grad who has interned at a political organization, a media company and a lobbying firm. To make ends meet, she works as a hostess three or four nights a week.

Ms. Seligson writes of Kate:

She’s one of the “permaterns” — those perpetual interns, mostly in their 20s — who have been battered by the recession and are holding out hope that the conventional career wisdom that an internship leads to a job isn’t folklore from a bygone era.

The serial intern isn’t unique to D.C. You can find young people languishing at film studios in Los Angeles and magazine empires in New York City.

The permatern phenomenon points toward wider trends in the economy — namely the cutthroat competition for knowledge-economy jobs, the lack of investment in this generation, and the skills gap between what a generation weaned on a liberal-arts education is trained for and what the in-demand skills and professions are right now (i.e., not another poli-sci or English major). The result? For many in Washington, the American dream starts with a highbrow internship that pays $4.35 an hour — then another, and maybe another.

We could go on with tale after depressing tale of similar circumstances. Instead, we offer some points to keep in mind when your adult child calls with the news of a “great” internship:

  • Make sure she knows all the details: how many hours a week are expected; exactly what her duties are; does she have to pay for the credit, as many companies require unpaid interns to get course credit, and that sometimes means extra tuition, especially during a summer session.
  • Make sure she has researched the internship.  Often a university internship office will keep a book with confidential information on the experiences of past interns at particular companies and whether their duties encompassed—as they are supposed—work equivalent to taking a class, not getting coffee.
  • Is there a limit on her hours?  Many internships will aggressively push for more hours, cutting into class work and study time, impacting the student’s grades.
  • If she wants to work at the company after the internship is over make sure she visits HR as well while she’s in the building.  It’s amazing how reluctant students often are to promote themselves. After graduation, urge her to keep in contact with people she worked with there.
  • If she’s going to take an internship then work it to the max. Advice heard (and learned) over and over proving that clichés are often true: Be the first in and last out; under promise and over deliver; have a positive attitude. Just last week a top editor at a prestigious magazine told a group of students that she got her foot in the door by being just such an intern.

Despite all the negative aspects, internships often prove invaluable as learning experience, for getting a foot in the door and, that Holy Grail, landing a first job.  Many of my former students as well as my three children would not have their first jobs without internships.  But students need to be selective and smart about which they take and about how long they will work for free.

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