NO RIFF-RAFF

Posted in Rants on April 15th, 2010 by Ed

For reasons that I assume relate directly to a large ad buy, CNN decided to let some hack from "CareerBuilder.com" answer the question that's on every young person's mind: "Why are internships so important?" Yes, please tell us, Ms. Beth Braccio Hering of CareerBuilder.com. Why are internships so important? God knows all my students are killing each other to get them. It's mildly horrifying to see the zeal with which they fight for the privilege of working for free, but let's stick to the original question.

You're a recent college graduate with a killer cover letter, a stellar grade point average and glowing recommendations.

But if one important item is missing from your résumé, good luck trying to get a position at The McTigue Financial Group in Chicago.

You need an internship.

(snip)

The good news for those fortunate enough to earn a spot: One in four become a full-time financial representative after graduation.

Yes, the problem is clearly that you have no worked gratis for one of Ms. Hering's paying clients. Both she and CareerBuilder.com are disinterested third parties here. They're merely trying to help you. And to let you know that 1 in 4 of these lucky boys and girls will attain a dream career as a "financial representative" if all goes well. Fingers crossed!

The state of the economy also is changing the nature of work given to interns. "In this economic downturn, employers are relying increasingly on interns to shore up areas where full-time hiring has been cut," Benca notes.

Oh yeah, they want to shore the hell out of those areas. They're quite eager to replace paid employees with college kids who can be convinced to work for nothing.

So you're working for someone else for free. What's in it for you?

Benefits for you

Besides getting a foot in the door with a potential employer and looking good on a résumé, internships have other advantages:

• The opportunity to "test drive" a career (Would I be happier in marketing or advertising? Am I more comfortable working with patients or in a lab?)

• Chances to network

• Establishing relationships with mentors

• Possible college credit or certification

• An introduction to the field's culture and etiquette (Are clients addressed by their first name? Are jeans appropriate for Casual Friday?)

• Accumulating new skills

• Gaining a "real world" perspective on an occupation (How much overtime do employees really work? How much time is spent behind a desk versus in the field?)

In the fantasy world inhabited by the minions who get paid to believe in the purity of this system, interning is a really sweet deal! All you have to do is move to one of the most expensive cities in the country – preferably NY or DC, possibly LA – and live for three or four months working ~45 hours weekly without getting a paycheck. Is it too late for me to sign up? This sounds awesome. What's in it for the "employer"?

Employers do not create internships just to be nice to students and others interested in a certain career. While an interview or a company test can add to what an employer knows about a person, an internship helps an employer evaluate how an individual would fare in the actual workplace.

Like The McTigue Group, many companies develop an internship pool and hire from that group. As Benca notes, "Not only are they seeing potential employees with experience, it is experience within their company."

Ah, I see. They do it to identify and court young talent. It's like the Yankees giving a free tryout to some talented minor leaguers. It is at once benevolent and efficient. I'm going to double-check the article but I think the author forgot to mention the thousands of hours of clerical work interns end up doing without unnecessary complications like salary, benefits, or labor laws.

In reality, getting free labor out of gullible (not to mention desperate and terrified of unemployment) undergrads is only part of the rationale behind the Intern Economy and this well-rehearsed bullshit about how much it benefits students. More importantly, this system is a brutally efficient class barrier. An internship is a necessary precursor to getting a job. Having Mom and Dad cough up several thousand dollars to support you while you live in an expensive city (and do some high-class partying, er, "networking", with your fellow children of the Investor Class) is a necessary precursor to interning for free. Hmm.

In one of the best episodes of the short-lived masterpiece Fawlty Towers, Basil (John Cleese) is eager to attract a more upper-class clientele to his flophouse. So he puts an ad in the local paper for a Gourmet Night at the hotel restaurant…closing with the phrase "NO RIFF-RAFF." Would that employers could cut to the chase and be so explicit in reality. They can't, but the Intern Economy gets the job done all the same. Internships have always been reserved for those whose parents or uncles know a guy who has a summer place on the Cape next to one of the managing editors of the Times or whatever, but now that the expectation of working for free has been drummed into the heads of an entire generation the process is more efficient than ever at weeding out the ones who don't come from money.

Far be it from me to question the sincerity of someone from CareerBuilder.com, but I am not clear on why employers would eliminate 75% of college students by making the internships unpaid if their goal really is to find the best candidates for future employment. What about the potential stars who have to, you know, work and earn money in the summer? That is a curious way to structure a process intended to identify the most promising potential hires for the future. That is, after all, the whole point of internships. Right?