Employment Guide: Brown: Internships should widen, not narrow, interests

By Simon Brown / Columnist

 Some ships are made of wood. Some ships are made of steel. But the most legally ambiguous and educationally dubious ships are internships. 

Granted, I might have taken some liberties with that quote, but it sums up the current status of unpaid internships quite well. 

But after long-overdue publicity surrounding the unfair conditions in which many student interns work, educators, employers and students are beginning to rethink the best way to introduce students into the working world. Though the responsibility rests on many different shoulders, students can begin to improve the situation by reconsidering the most common attitude toward internships — that they are simply stepping stones to one particular field of employment.

Rather, if students approached internships as opportunities to experience work environments and skill sets they’ve rarely encountered, the institution can regain its educational legitimacy. 

As several high-profile cases have recently been brought to light, the unpaid internship exists now largely to exploit the unskilled labor of college students eager to enter the job market, regardless of the entrance. Defenders maintain that direct workplace experience is the best introduction to gainful employment, even if there is no monetary gain to be had on the part of the student.

Despite these claims, the now trite image of the coffee-fetching college junior happily interning at a major company is no myth. 

Though it’s easy to depict employers in these cases as the greedy robber barons preying on naive college students, it’s the students themselves who happily play into the system.

Though it might seem counterintuitive to some, the willingness of college students to accept no pay for what too often has no educational benefit makes sense in light of current expectations. 

Since providing unpaid internships often comes at little cost to companies, their prevalence in an otherwise contracted job market has maintained strength. This means that more and more students and graduates unable to find paid employment resort to the next best thing: an internship. 

It has now become less of a unique educational opportunity and more of a ritual supposedly required to attract any attention from a potential employer. And regarding those students who can claim that an impressed employer hired them after their internship, such a benefit is strictly personal. That is, the personal connections and diligent work that often lands someone a job following an internship might be helpful for the person lucky enough to find that opportunity, but that doesn’t mean they provide the valuable vocational training that benefits society as a whole. 

The real problem, however, is that this ritual — like most — produces almost no tangible results. Despite the mantra, unpaid internships do not measurably lead to paid employment. Students with experience as unpaid interns have only a negligible advantage over their inexperienced peers when it comes to finding jobs of any kind. 

So should the entire house of cards collapse now that the illusion has been revealed? No. But it will have to be grounded on a firmer foundation of students’ expectations. 

If students and universities considered internships more as opportunities to get acquainted with a work environment and experiences with clear educational goals, then all parties would stand to benefit. Most importantly, it would relieve the pressure that students feel to rush into the first internship they deem necessary to enter their career. The language of a competitive edge simply perpetuates this stress, and colleges like Pitt ought to reconsider its use. 

Most importantly, this change in the culture surrounding the internship will require that students appreciate these opportunities as glimpses into career paths that go undiscovered in the curriculum. Especially in an economy that rapidly antiquates skill sets and values adaptability, pursuing internships that pique curiosity and expand horizons prove far more meaningful than many internships as they currently exist. 

In this way, the status of the institution can rebound to one of real desirability. The chance to explore a workspace with no background and no credentials can and should be common to college students, especially considering programs such as Teach for America, the Peace Corps and countless internships that exist for current undergrads and recent graduates. 

These opportunities, however, largely dry up in the more brutal climate of the postgraduation job market. As time goes on, the chances to enter a completely unfamiliar field grow thinner and thinner. 

Taking advantage of these chances means not only expanding your skills, but possibly even discovering the field in which you want to work for the rest of your life. 

That is, until some college sophomore volunteers to do it for free. 

Write Simon at [email protected]