The Unhappy Rise Of The Millennial Intern

April 22, 2014 | By Neil Howe

This editorial originally appeared in Forbes.

“Experience,” the Harvard Crimson argues, is the currency driving so many college- and post-college age Millennials to summer internships, paid and unpaid. As the internship application season heats up, these 20-somethings are scouring job boards for the right internship that will get them into the careers of their dreams. Famously confident of their eventual success, Millennials don’t move on to alternative career choices in response to adversity—as many young Boomers and Xers would have done. The problem is, all too many of these internships do little or nothing for those who take them.

Though especially prevalent in high-prestige creative fields like music, media, and fashion, low-paid or unpaid internships are spreading out to all sectors. From nonprofits to law firms to government, they are replacing many traditional entry-level positions. An internship, according to the Department of Labor, is a formal program providing a practical learning experience for beginners in an occupation or profession that lasts a limited amount of time. Legally, an internship can be unpaid only if the employer is a nonprofit (in which case it’s volunteering) or if the intern earns formal college credit on the job.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 97 percent of large employers in 2014 plan to hire interns. Estimates of the total number of interns range from one to two million. Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, told USA Today in 2012 that 1.5 million internships are filled in the United States each year. Perlin estimates that roughly half of these are unpaid. But of course all these figures are guesses, since many—and perhaps even most—of the interns are unpaid and probably illegal. Few employers have any incentive to report them, and prestigious firms can often get around the pay requirement by finding colleges willing to give course credit for the work, whatever that work may be.

These “internships to nowhere” have evolved far from their original purpose. Prior to the 1990s, formal internships were rare. They functioned as apprenticeships in credentialed professional programs such as health care or accounting. But starting with late-wave Xers, this formality began to fade. College credit started to replace pay as more high-prestige companies offered unpaid positions, which continued to attract plenty of well-qualified applicants willing to compete for free.

The first wave of Millennial graduates was generally happy with this system. Internships provided a well-marked road to employment without the risk of looking for a job. By the eve of the Great Recession, internships had become the preferred path to success. NACE reports that, from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, the share of college graduates participating in at least one internship rose from less than 10 percent to over 80 percent. Meanwhile, the share who got their first full-time post-graduation job through an internship rose from 5 to 30 percent.

In recent years, internships remain as prevalent as ever—but their ability to confer a real career has faded along with the economy. In 2013, NACE reported that only 63 percent of graduating students who had held paid internships received a job offer by graduation. As for unpaid internships, students who have them are today hardly more likely to get a job offer (37 percent) than those who have no internship at all (35 percent).

But Millennials’ high hopes and desire for meaningful work drive them to seek out these internships over other options. Relentless optimists, Millennials would rather hold out for the best job. Unlike young Boomers and Xers, many Millennials would rather take an internship with the hopes of scaling the ladder at an existing business rather than risk being shut out of their desired field or venturing out on their own.

This generation is also increasingly removed from the shrinking and aging world of blue-collar work. For young Boomers and Xers, college wasn’t the only ticket to success. But few Millennials see any fruitful path that doesn’t require a college degree. The growing share of Millennials with degrees expects to make use of them—and see no future in any job associated with the “old” economy. So long as they are working in a high-prestige field, they view internships—however lowly—as a better investment in their future.

To be sure, many of the Millennials taking internship after internship can only do so thanks to their parents' resources. Plenty of young adults in less privileged positions would jump at the chance for any job that pays the bills. The spread of the low-paid or unpaid internship reflects the growing inequality between Millennial haves and have-nots, where those with enough resources can continue working for free in hopes of their “big break,” and those without have to settle.

With the help of law firms and unions, some young workers have begun to push back against unpaid internships. In the past year, several high-profile companies have been sued for failing to comply with intern labor laws. The interns, as plaintiffs, charge that they performed basic tasks normally left to paid employees, like getting coffee and making copies. The law firm Outten & Golden has chosen to specialize in persuading interns to sue their former employers. An increasing number of businesses—most notably, Condé Nast—have shut down their programs.

Yet this leaves Millennials in an uncomfortable situation. On the one hand, they would greatly prefer to see companies replace unpaid internships with permanent paid jobs. Yet they know that most of these positions won’tbe replaced—which would close the only door to the industry of their dreams. These would-be workers are left with no easy options. Meanwhile, the only winners are the employers they hope so fervently to impress.

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