Internships (or, Get me some coffee Bitch!)
The question of interns is extremely tricky. On the one hand, it makes an indentured servant class out of the young and indebted when they have the most energy and are most eager to offer new ideas. On the other hand, most college graduates don’t know their asses from a hole in the ground and have very limited life experience, so they aren’t the most helpful people to have around. In an ideal world, the intern is given experience in the environment they wish to be a part of. Their payment is knowledge and opportunities, which, if they listen, learn, and hustle, could result in a legitimate job in their desired field. The problem, of course, is that ideal world doesn’t exist. Not all internships are created equal and whether you end up actually learning a craft, or the exact amount of sugar the executive assistant likes in his daily soy latte is a flip of the coin. And that’s even assuming that you got an internship in a field you care about. Given the economic woes of the day, everyone is eager for unpaid help. Consequently, the best gigs are overstocked with free labor. No one likes turning down an opportunity (especially when they are as desperate as the recent crop of new grads are), so now you have people taking internships with companies that say ‘yes’ rather than companies that anyone wants to work for, paid or unpaid. Uncompensated, unhappy labor is seldom productive, or particularly interested in becoming so.
Like most big issues, there’s no right and wrong side, more a wide spread bedlam of sour feelings from the majority seasoned with a few cases over the top success that allow the cycle to perpetuate its myth of overall function. And, like most illnesses, the problem is just the symptom, not the sickness itself. The plight of the post-college intern is tragic, as much as is the necessity of business to function on free labor. The problem comes from how we’re churning out students for the job market. The problem comes from college.
Statistically speaking, if you go to college, you will make more money. The higher education industry is always eager to taut that fact. What they don’t make clear is that this is, in fact, a lifetime average, and that by opening yourself up to a wider berth of people and places and knowledge, you increase the odds of success exponentially regardless of if that takes place at an institution of higher ed. Colleges are a business like any other, and they need to make money. So, they have to sell young people on a dream that, as young and inexperienced people without much life experience, they are highly susceptible to. The kids are already good at going to school, and they are told if they go to more school, they’ll make more money when they are done.
The statistic may be true, but the path colleges provide for students to success is on the whole false. Once you graduate school, your real education begins. Real life very quickly breaks down the walls of theory you were taught were truth. Even the way you learned is replaced from study and exam to trial and error, the latter of which can be very jarring when there are genuine consequences to amateur mistakes. With the massive wave of hungry interns flooding the job market, it’s much easier to be replaced for a mistake than trained to correct it. It’s also much easier to be discouraged when all the life training you’ve been doing for the past 16 years is dismissed by the working world, and you’re forced to start, largely if not entirely, from scratch. The initial years out of school are the years that now dictate a life course, not the years earning a bachelor’s.
What colleges profess to offer and what they deliver are two related, but distinct things. What they profess to offer is the path to a successful career in a field of your choosing. What they deliver is a study of the fields within the given career, allowing you to generate your own conclusions about your best course of action. The logic is that if you understand everything about the field and a range of others, you will be capable of the clever abstract thought to blaze your own trail. This sounds fine in theory, but as everyone who has gone to college and gotten into the real world will tell you, there is a great difference between practice and theory.
Presenting themselves as a stop on the route to a career, colleges sell you on the idea that they are trade schools. That is plainly false. When you graduate from undergraduate school, you are not ready to be a professional; at least, not from what they have taught you. They have given you the tools for success, but their implementation will be extremely complex as the world shows you how it functions, and you have to figure out how to work within its system. Immediately after college graduation is the worst time for an internship: there is never a greater disparity in what you think you know about the world and what is true as when you come out of college. It’s how you handle that disparity which dictates your ultimate success in life.
So, that begs the question: What is the right time for an internship? The best time for an unpaid internship is immediately after high school graduation. Still with the mentality of a child, students in high school are used to older people telling them how things work. This will allow them to listen more attentively to their work superiors. Still living under their parent’s roof and working a part time job will give them a sense of continuance. This will allow the pressure to succeed right away to remain minimal and let them focus on what they’re doing now, not what they should be doing. But more than anything, if they have an interest in a given career path, they can taste it right away. They can learn what it means to be in the line of work from the bottom and fight their way up without a sense of entitlement and without the accrued debt of a degree. And if they decide to be in that field, and that field does require a college education, they can go to school knowing what they’re looking for. They can examine how to apply their education to their work while they are learning. It’s a much more instantaneous system which lets them know if their investment in school is going to be worth the cost.
Internships are never going to be much fun. Few of us like working for free. Still, we all have an imagination, and it’s a matter of keeping a vivid goal in mind that you’re working towards. If you want the internship system to vanish, it never will. Free labor is too appealing. But, if you want the internship system to work more efficiently, you have to know what you’re getting involved with at the earliest stages. And that’s a lesson that few educational institutions are eager to teach you.