Graduating from college terrifies a lot of people. When I graduated last spring, most of my friends didn’t have concrete plans. Of those who did, the majority were headed to graduate school. Many of my friends thoughtfully committed to service programs such as College Possible or Minnesota Reading Corps – both divisions of Americorps. I wished one friend well as she prepared to go to Sri Lanka on a Fulbright and others as they moved across the country – either to go back home or to start a new life in a new place. And of course, many of us started to look for jobs and internships.
I majored in English and History knowing that I wanted to work in publishing, so the concept of putting in time at an internship before being hired for a “real job” wasn’t news to me. The knowledge that many of these opportunities would be unpaid wasn’t news either. Knowing that these internships would be crucial stepping-stones in my career, I began early. I had an unpaid internship at a small press during my sophomore year, and another paid internship with a historical press during my senior year. I made an effort to connect with alumni from my school currently working in publishing and gladly accepted advice from my parents’ friends in the business. After graduation I accepted a paid internship with Lerner Publishing which became a full-time job in photo-research, mostly due to lucky timing.
While the story of my employment looks like one of planning and hard work that could easily be replicated by anyone with the same skills and determination, I view myself as incredibly lucky. I had a vision for my career going into my major, something that was not extremely common at my school. I went to school in the Twin Cities, a metropolitan area with a vibrant literary culture and plenty of internship opportunities and people willing to meet with and mentor aspiring students.
Luckiest of all, I grew up in a family that valued education and was able to support me. I could take an unpaid internship in college because my parents could afford to pay for college and make sure that I was able to live comfortably. During my post-college job search I could afford to look at opportunities that paid less because I was fortunate enough to graduate without student loan debt. I took a risk and took a three-month internship, knowing that if it didn’t work out and I had to search for a job again, I could fall back on both my savings and supportive parents.
However, many young graduates don’t have these options. “The Project on Student Debt”, an initiative of The Institute for College Access & Success, lists average undergraduate debt in 2012 at $26,600. Students with that amount of debt (or more) may find it extremely difficult to consider internships that pay either nothing or very little.
Do I regret taking my internships? Of course not. They gave me opportunities to learn about the publishing industry, make contacts, and helped me gain valuable work experience. However, the fact that these internships gave me work experience means that I was, well, working. While internships vary widely, they were originally meant to be a “learning experience” rather than a working one, which justified their unpaid status. However, most internships today are more similar to entry-level jobs that have been eliminated due to budget cuts. People who work deserve to be paid fairly for their efforts. Unpaid internships take advantage of young, desperate college students and graduates. In addition, they create an uneven playing field for the jobs that require applicants to have internship experience on their resume. While I understand that many small and independent publishers face financial challenges, asking young people to provide unpaid labor is not the answer. Publishers who value their interns and the work they do should be willing to compensate them for their time and effort.