Students! You are right to question unpaid internships, because they are seriously questionable. I am an Ithaca College alum who’s been in the workforce for five years. After graduation, I worked one paid internship, one unpaid internship and a tedious desk job. I slept on a friend’s floor because I couldn’t afford rent or food. Still, I had high hopes. These never-ending internships, whose tasks were often dehumanizing and trivial, went on essentially as long as I consented to work for free. When I asked about getting paid, I was told there weren’t any positions available, but I could continue to intern.
When I finally did get an entry-level job, somewhere else, in my field, I learned that most of the interesting work went to the interns to “keep them,” while they were also still being abused in various and sundry ways (walking 14 blocks to get a milkshake for my supervisor who was about two years older than me was standard Friday afternoon fare).
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “OK, I already knew internships and entry-level jobs suck, but I need them to get a job!” Guess what? You don’t.
The jobs I have gotten that I love, that nourish me, I got through people I met doing volunteer work or off websites like Craigslist and Idealist.com. Or, through friends — people I met in industry networking groups or were relations of friends. Yes, if the job is competitive, maybe you need some reasonable experience to get through the door, but that experience is not an unpaid internship. If they aren’t willing to pay you now, they’ll never get used to the idea.
I’ve watched nearly all my friends, who work in media, nonprofit and for profit work, suffer through the same thing. By accepting unpaid internships, you are not only hurting yourself but your entire community. Don’t we want to live in a world where we get jobs because we deserve them? Shockingly, unpaid internships work counter to this, favoring only the people who can survive an endurance game of living without their own income, which is not fair to you and the many who have the skills and ambition but no Miss Havinsham to turn to. It’s inequitable and undermines the tenant of social mobility that our education system claims to be about.
My advice: if no paid internships or entry level jobs will have you, get a low-key job and join networking groups, peer groups, and talk to everyone you meet about your dreams and goals. Someone will help you. In my experience, people are generous — companies are not.
If you really respect yourself, demand that you get paid. I know the fears, but you must be strategic, because companies want to take advantage of you. I am only five years ahead of you seniors, and I’ve already watched positions go from the hiring pool to the “unpaid internship” pool. By taking these internships, you’re essentially letting someone else have the money from a paycheck you deserve. Please watch out for each other — we’re in this together.
Emily Gallagher ’06 is an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum. She also serves as the co-chair for NAG, a Brooklyn environmental justice and community planning group. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.