Talk about socking the gift horse

A response to a LinkedIn post about surviving as a college intern caught my eye this morning:

“1 Tip For Hiring an Intern: Pay them. Pay them SOMETHING. Even minimum wage.”

Not a unique response. You see a lot of them following articles about interning. And the number of hits you get from a Google® search for “intern lawsuits” is astounding.

Comic by Lonnie Millsap

A preface before I climb onto my soapbox: I believe there are many college students who are appreciative of the opportunity to take part in an internship, paid or unpaid. I also believe many of them have legitimate gripes about the work they end up doing. Any company advertising for a college intern and then putting one to work as a flunky is guilty of bait-and-switch, and stupidity.

Internships are about mentorship. When you take on an intern, it’s a little like signing up to be a Big Brother or Big Sister. You are responsible for helping a student get their hands dirty in their chosen field so they can determine if they’re heading down the right path or not. And if they are, the skills they learn should be ones that will help them land and succeed at their first “real” post-college job.

Most of the time, the intern is also earning college credit for the experience. That means that the employer essentially takes on the role of instructor. So again, if you hire an intern, you are taking on a responsibility. If you’re not willing to do the job right, don’t have an internship program. You’re not only cheating the student — you’re cheating the university.

Photo of Dana Carvey doing his "Grmpy Old Man" character from Saturday Night Live.

Here I go: “Back in my day . . . “

I didn’t have the opportunity to apply for an internship when I was in college. I don’t know if anyone at my college got an internship anywhere. I don’t remember hearing anyone talk about internships at all. (I went to Texas Tech. About all I remember of the experience is dust storms, tumbleweed alerts and the smell of cow poop. Oh, and a lack of decent parties.)

At one point in my life — long past college, and well into my marketing career — I wanted to explore a pretty drastic career change. Suffice it to say that during that expensive, demoralizing experience, I would have killed for an unpaid internship.

I was attempting a radical change, so the only thing I could do to gain experience was to start my own business. I sold a product and service; my materials, travel, and advertising expenses far outweighed my income, so I ran at a loss the entire time. An unpaid internship would have actually saved me a lot of money.

After doing that for two years, I was finally able to land a paid job in my chosen field — at the grand sum of $9/hour. When I finally declared the whole experiment a failure and walked away, I had made it all the way up to $38k/year. That was about half of what I would have been worth at the time had I stayed in marketing, the field to which I ultimately returned.

It was a learning experience. A long, depressing, expensive learning experience. As I mentioned earlier, I know I would have saved money if I’d gotten an internship to begin with, and probably a lot of time and heartache as well. Unfortunately, those opportunities aren’t open to people who aren’t in college anymore.

That’s why it frustrates me so much when I hear students whining about having to take an internship for no pay. Be grateful! This is an opportunity you will only have for four years, and then it will be gone forever (unless you keep going to school, in which case you’ll have far greater financial problems than whether or not your internship comes with a paycheck).

Image of James Van Der Beek as Dawson in "Dawson's Creek."

“Waaaaaaa! I want a paid internship! I don’t care that I’m gaining experience, earning college credit, and getting to put something on what would otherwise be a completely blank resume! I want my mommy!”

Here’s a thought:

In the same way the Make-A-Wish Foundation — an organization dedicated to granting the wishes of critically ill children — paved the way for organizations that now exist to grant wishes for adults with terminal illness or disability, why can’t traditional internship programs branch out, and spawn a similar program for adults? There are so many ways to construct a program like this, and it could be a real win-win for all involved.

Imagine you run a Fortune 500 company, and have the ability to take on 25 interns in a given year. Now imagine that you institute a policy wherein first-interview preference for five of those internship slots is given to people who are not in college, but rather adults who are collecting unemployment. For positions that don’t require a college degree or certification, maybe that preference includes people on welfare.

That’s 25 people you could help move off unemployment and/or welfare, into full-time employment, and on the road to financial stability.

This kind of program might work best if it includes government sponsorship that allows the program to last for a specified amount of time — say three months — during which the “intern” continues to receive their benefits (you’d have to do this, or you would wind up with people deliberately sabotaging their interviews or doing bad work just to keep collecting checks. Then again, maybe that’s how you identify people who need to be relieved of welfare?).

I’m sure some wet blankets would also cry, “Discrimination!” at this suggestion, but I would counter-argue that hiring only college students for internships is the same type of “discrimination,” and if that’s legal. . . .

I’m not a politician, and I hated history and social studies when I was in school. I struggled just to remember that crap long enough to do well on a test (and don’t forget the amazing inspiration I had as my first social studies teacher). So I admit there could be financial or political ramifications to these scenarios that I’m not addressing. But there are people who actually liked those classes, who are politicians, who could find solutions to those problems. I don’t need to do that here.

Drawing typically found in a history textbook. It's really dull. You're fortunate you can't see it.

Boring drawing of some boring historical event. Probably came from some boring history textbook.

Another cool option:

An employment placement agency that matches people with internship opportunities. This model would help people interested in making a big career change. An unpaid internship is a lot more practical than paying for a second college degree or a master’s (or taking my route), especially if, at the end of the whole mess, you discover you were wrong about that career change. And the employer would have the benefit of a free employee who is internally motivated to contribute, absorb information, and be of value to the company.

Think anyone in a position to make these things happen will step up? Me neither. The potential benefits are too great, and too long-term. Business leaders are only interested in small, short-term gains.

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