Work & Purpose

Should Your Twentysomething Take an Internship?

How to help your child sort out the pros and cons

The recent Nancy Meyers movie The Intern makes comedy out of an unusual internship scenario.  A wise, avuncular Robert De Niro plays the “senior intern,” who at 70 and a retired  executive, goes to work for a hip, e-commerce fashion company helmed by the take-no-prisoners young founder and chief, Anne Hathaway. Although he starts out doing menial chores (chauffeuring, handling dry cleaning…), before too long, he’s sought out by everyone at the company for advice, creates winning business strategies and becomes indispensable to his boss. Ah, Hollywood…if only it went like that for twentysomethings.

Internships have become a common stepping-stone in the job-hunting quest of emerging adults, and, some argue, a necessary evil. Internships may be unpaid or low-paid (usually a small stipend or minimum wage), but they’re a way to gain real-world work experience during (or instead of) college, the summers or after graduation. They’ve become more important than ever in a competitive job market, where having experience in a field of choice gives a first-time job applicant an extra edge. Indeed, in a difficult economy, there’s competition even for unpaid internships because they’re seen as a gateway to future paid work.

Better Than a Dead-End Job

Many career counselors who guide twentysomethings believe that taking an internship can be a wise choice on the road to gainful employment.  Toni Littlestone, for instance, a career counselor in Albany, Calif., who has helped numerous young people find their bliss, argues that an unpaid internship in a field of interest is a better choice than a paying, but dead-end, job.

“When young people have a variety of experiences, it’s like money in the bank,” she points out.  If they have the wherewithal to support themselves in other ways, she adds, “those early internships will get them a job for the next 10 years.”

As a case in point, she cites a young client who was weighing a minimum-wage, burger-flipping job offer from McDonald’s against an unpaid internship at an environmental agency. He took the internship and six months later got a job at the Trust for the Public Land, launching him into doing good work as an environmentalist in a career he loved.

The Fair Labor Standards Act tightened requirements for what qualifies as an internship to help prevent unpaid internship abuse.

On the plus side, internships provide a foot in the door, an opportunity to observe a field and try it on for size: learn its daily tasks, its larger purpose, its challenges and rewards. When it’s a good match, an internship offers a route to gain experience, make contacts, build a resumé and ideally parlay the newly gained skills and a glowing recommendation into a full-fledged career.

Internships can rule out a profession as well, saving a lot of angst down the road.  For instance, a summer intern at a law firm might find out she doesn’t like the minutiae (or confrontations) involved in legal cases. Or a newspaper intern might come to realize that turning out rapid copy is not his forte. During a short-term internship, these lessons can be learned without too high a price in time or money and with the chance to find a better match next time out.

On the minus side, interns labor at rock-bottom of an office’s hierarchy and are often assigned the tasks no one else wants. These duties can turn out to be repetitive, boring grunt work since some companies and nonprofits take advantage of young interns eager to make an impression and snag a much-needed recommendation.

Many of the unpaid or poorly paid interns we interviewed started out with high hopes and great intentions, but left feeling disillusioned and bitter that they were asked to do  work that really should have been compensated, at least at minimum wage.

Think Outside the Internship

The downside is why critics call internships, at their worst, indentured servitude and another distinction between the job-seeking haves and have-nots. The haves can take these poorly paid or unpaid apprenticeships and still rely on parents’ support to sustain or supplement them; the have-nots, without that crucial parental financial backing, are forced to take starter jobs that pay, but not very well, and may not lead into a field of real, sustaining potential.

One solution, when it’s possible, is to combine a part-time internship with a part-time job like restaurant work or child care that will bring in regular income to cover expenses and subsidize the unpaid work.

Emerging adults in college who can’t afford to take an unpaid internship might consider a work-study job or taking a course that gives credit for an outside internship. Either could lead to a future job in a promising career.

Another possibility is volunteering a few hours or evening a week for an organization that needs help and might offer contacts or leads later on — whether a political campaign, a health clinic or an arts program.

There are also programs like Year Up, an organization that offers a year of post-high-school, intensive training and is targeted to give employment opportunities to young people who don’t have family resources and connections and may not attend college.

In 2010, under President Obama, The Fair Labor Standards Act tightened the requirements for what qualifies as an internship to help prevent unpaid internship abuse. Six criteria were established, and all have to be met for an intern to work without pay in the private sector.  Among them: The internship experience needs to be set up for the intern’s benefit, supervised and not displace paid employees. The fortunate result of this legislation has been that more interns are now paid at least the minimum wage.

To head off a disappointing outcome, encourage your internship-seeker to ask good questions ahead of time about the work that will be involved— hours, tasks, training, possible future employment and so on.  Remind your son or daughter to take the internship as seriously as any job, keep eyes and ears open to learn everything possible, follow up afterwards with a thank-you email and keep the contact alive through email or LinkedIn to help with job-hunting later on.

If your child follows these guidelines, the internship could be a launching pad to a promising career.

Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett
By Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett
Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett are co-authors of Getting to 30: A Parent's Guide to the 20-Something Years. Fishel is the author of four other books on families, including Sisters and Reunion. Arnett is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University.

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