Advice to unpaid interns: you’re being exploited and won’t get a job

October 26, 2012
October 26, 2012

I am the queen of unpaid internships.

My tasks have been of both the tedious and substantive sort. In Paris, where I went to college and interned at a US diplomatic mission, I cheerfully called up numerous French organizations to secure enough attendees for an event featuring Hillary Clinton. In Israel, I spent hours googling funding opportunities for an Arab women’s NGO. In The Hague, I wrote legal briefs, translated, and researched for the prosecutor of an international criminal tribunal created by the United Nations.

But I was not paid.

So one day, I quit. Nearly three months into my internship (because one must commit to at least three months, full time, when applying to this particular tribunal), I say I can no longer afford to work for free. My supervisor barely bats an eye: another batch of interns is flying over in a few days anyway.

This madness started in my junior year of college, when a professor advised that I start doing internships to “beef up” my CV and to help me figure out what the hell I wanted to do with my life.

Three years later, my CV is undoubtedly longer but reads like a series of disjointed entries: a few months in a place, rent, and transportation at my own expense, then onward to the next miserly endeavor, my résumé expanding proportionally to a weariness about my lack of compensation.

And like salt in the wound, for each entry I can remember at least one classmate, professor, or employee within the field telling me how lucky I had been to secure the uncompensated position.

Perhaps, above all, the internships showed me that I preferred a different path: as it turns out, I want to work as a journalist, even if the media industry is often equally guilty of not paying its interns. And while I now have a strong sense of what I want in a career, I’m also left with a heavy conscience. What would I have done had I not had a family that could support me financially? Am I not indirectly helping widen the gap between those with and without the means?

And with my laundry list of CV-worthy entries, I can’t help but wonder whether Columbia University’s graduate school would have chosen the same me without all the unpaid experience. Had I been chosen over someone less financially fortunate?

With my guilt comes anger at this system that keeps so many educated young people competing to work for free at organizations that, more often than not, have no jobs to offer them in the end.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Here are some stats from a New York Times op-ed by Ross Perlin, author of “Intern Nation”:

Three-quarters of the 10 million students enrolled in America’s four-year colleges and universities will work as interns at least once before graduating, according to the College Employment Research Institute. Between one-third and half will get no compensation for their efforts, a study by the research firm Intern Bridge found.

And in 2012, only 37% of unpaid interns will get a job offer, according to a recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

With unpaid internships this prevalent, it’s no wonder that 28 of the 33 graduate students I surveyed, most of whom study at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, had interned for free at least once. Seven students within this sample had, combined, over 12 months of unpaid work experience each.

But this mockery of human worth is not reserved only for collegiate youth. Thirty-somethings work a year in corporate jobs they hate in order to save for 12 months of internships in The Hague, hoping to land that dream job at an international tribunal. Law school grads, ink barely dry on their expensive diplomas, take out more loans to move halfway around the world to do unpaid work because otherwise, there is none.

While I can understand that small NGOs can’t always afford to pay their interns, I remain ever amazed by the practices of the US State Department and the United Nations, with their relatively high-paid and pensioned staff. Last spring, I was offered an unpaid internship at, ironically enough, the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

Admittedly, the internship still sounded like it would offer a bona fide work experience.

“You are not treated as a typical ‘intern’ in this office—you are treated like a Foreign Affairs Officer,” my would-be State Department advisor wrote to me about the opportunity.

Essentially, I’d be a temporary employee fulfilling an entry-level position that probably used to exist before unpaid internships became not only acceptable, but advisable by university professors.

In the time that it took me to ask for funding, two others, willing to work without compensation, were chosen to fill both the spring and summer slots. If I still fancied moving to D.C. on my own dime and working for free full-time, I’d have to send over a fresh application for the fall.

It’s much of the same at the UN, where graduate students are considered a core asset. And yet UN policy remains firmly against any financial support for interns. To be considered for an internship at New York headquarters, one must be at the graduate level and work full time, unpaid, for a minimum of two months—in one of the most expensive cities in the world, might I note.

The true sense of my frustration is that there is no political will within these socially conscious international and government organizations to help cover a young worker’s rent and food.

That’s why I’m so happy that young people are starting to speak out. The Geneva Interns Association and the Hague Interns Association have started lobbying organizations in both cities to pay interns. And though not within the government realm, a former unpaid intern at Harper’s Bazaar in New York filed a lawsuit in February alleging that the magazine’s parent organization, Hearst Corporation, had violated federal and state labor laws.

Only when young people refuse en masse to work for free will there ever be the political will to compensate them.

But until then, I’m left in limbo. When I entered graduate school this semester at Columbia, the program adviser at orientation explained that if we wanted to find jobs in our field, we’d likely have to do internships during or after completing our graduate degree.

I hesitantly raised my hand: “Are the internships in the careers database generally paid or unpaid?”

I already knew the answer.

You can follow Rachael on Twitter at @rachael_levy. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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