We, the Millennials, (also known as Gen Y, Echo Boomers and the Everybody-Gets-a-Trophy Generation) are the most educated generation in American history. However, much to our dismay, our academic achievements alone no longer translate to employment and economic success. In fact, it is anticipated that our generation will be the first in America not to earn more than our parents. In the words of Joe Queenan of the Wall Street Journal, we are entering a labor force that neither wants us nor needs us. Ouch.
Despite this harsh reality, Millennials remain surprisingly optimistic about the future. A childhood of excessive praise, happy-face stickers and you-can-do-it cheers has left us unwilling to accept failure or rejection. Though many of our elders claim we are entitled, whiney and self-absorbed for this reason, we remain firmly committed to securing our dream jobs and achieving our wildest ambitions, whatever the sacrifice may be … even if that means working for free.
Here at Cornell, the “vacation” aspect of summer vacation is a foreign concept to many. In fact, it’s somewhat looked down upon by those who spend their ten weeks off maximizing their productivity on Excel in a 5’ x 5’ cubicle. The standard question, “What did you do this summer?” has been replaced by “Where did you intern this summer?” illustrating the extent to which undergraduate work experience has become normalized and even expected. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 50 percent of graduating students in 2008 had held internships, up from 17 percent in 1992. Of these internships, the NACE estimated that about half are unpaid.
All ridicule aside, my own experiences as an (unpaid) intern have given me much more than a few lines on my resume. They’ve helped me better define both what I want to do as well as what I don’t want to do — often the more difficult part. My internships have altered my academic plans, made me think about graduate school in an entirely new light and exposed me to careers that I never could have envisioned for myself at age 20. Nevertheless, the ethics and legality of unpaid internships just don’t sit right with me, and are thus, cause for concern.
Leaders in higher education have made vast strides in recent years to level the playing field among students from different economic backgrounds with need-blind admissions and increased financial aid. Yet as more and more employers want and expect graduates to have relevant work experience for entry-level jobs, low- and middle-income students can be disadvantaged when they enter the job market. In this regard, the mass surge in unpaid internships among undergraduates has undermined efforts to equalize opportunities. With loans in the bank and high living expenses, few low- and middle-income students can afford to work for free. It is a privilege reserved only for the economic elite, providing high-income students with yet another leg-up upon graduation. Consequently, the wealthier the student, the more likely it is that he or she graduates loan-free and employed. So much for education as an equalizer.
Furthermore, it turns out that a good number of unpaid internships are illegal. This past summer, the U.S. Labor Department began to crack down on employers who, in the wake of the financial crisis, laid off paid employees and replaced them with unpaid interns desperate for experience and willing to work for free.
There are six federal legal criteria for internships to be unpaid. Chiefly, the internship must be analogous to a vocational school or academic institution and that “the employer derive no immediate advantage” from the intern’s contribution. For those of you who spent your summer going on coffee-runs and filing papers as an unpaid intern, such tedious work without compensation is technically illegal. However, so is doing legitimate work where you may actually learn something if that work just so happens to benefit the employer as well. If we follow these regulations tooth and nail, where does that leave us interns? For many of us, the answer seems to be internship-less. The only thing worse than working for free is not being allowed to work for free. Given this lose-lose situation, it’s not so surprising that few interns are filing complaints against their employers.
Despite increased law enforcement, it does not seem likely that unpaid internships are going to disappear anytime soon, especially in this economy. However, if we get rid of all the hype and focus on the reasons why students should intern in the first place — to expose themselves to different careers via hands-on work experience — there might be a way to turn internships into a win-win for employers and students of all economic backgrounds.
First, the Labor Department should redefine the criteria for unpaid internships to encourage true apprentice-like internship programs while protecting students’ labor rights. Employers don’t want to hire interns who serve no benefit to them; such interns are a headache and get in the way. Similarly, students don’t want to work for employers who won’t allow them to contribute anything valuable. Such internships are a waste of time and nothing more than fluff on students’ resumes. Some have proposed establishing a mutual benefit test to tackle this problem. Ideally, this mutual benefit test would have a stipend component attached.
Additionally, colleges and universities can take bigger steps to promote undergraduate work experience by providing students with more personalized career counseling and financial support. Connecticut College has been praised for its Career Enhancing Life Skills (CELS), a four-year program through which students plan coursework and activities, look for career-related junior-year internships and get help with the job search as seniors. Most notably, the program provides students with a $3,000 internship stipend for the summer between junior and senior year, allowing students the opportunity to pursue personalized internships in their field of interest without the financial burden. This funded internship enables students to extend their education beyond the classroom and attach economic value to what they’ve learned.
While Cornell’s much larger student body may be an impediment to establishing such a program, the University should look to programs like CELS to enhance career services on campus. Perhaps individual colleges could establish CELS-like programs to cater to their respective students’ needs.
Though we, the Millennials, remain confident in our ability to succeed despite the cards we’ve been dealt, extra guidance (and a few extra bucks) is always welcome.
Carolyn Witte is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Wit’s End appears alternate Thursdays this semester.