What can Ireland learn from US intern culture?

In the home of interning, unpaid placements are embedded in workplace culture. Is that Ireland’s future too?

One step at a time: in the US there is an expectation of starting at the bottom and working your way up through an internship. Photograph: Goodluz/iStock/Getty

One step at a time: in the US there is an expectation of starting at the bottom and working your way up through an internship. Photograph: Goodluz/iStock/Getty

Sat, May 11, 2013, 10:06

The opening scene of the HBO series Girls summed up the financial and employment stress affecting many young Americans. Hannah, the lead character, is stunned as her parents cut off her financial support; her sense of entitlement, her fear and her lack of secure employment create one of the great tensions between baby boomers and millenials stateside.

Employment rates among young people in the US are at an all-time low, with just 54 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds in employment. And those with jobs have seen their salaries fall by 6 per cent, a bigger drop than in any other age group.

As more western cities ape the internship culture of the US, the gap between graduating and getting paid to work appears to be widening. So what can Ireland learn from the United States’ embedded intern culture?

Hamilton Nolan, who has written extensively, on gawker.com, about employment and internships, is unambiguous. “It’s a system that rips off young people and benefits companies. It’s essentially unpaid labour, which should not be accepted as a phenomenon,” he says. “The problem is that by the time this drawback became clear, the internship system was so entrenched among desirable employers that young people had little recourse but to participate. But it clearly creates a hardship for them.”

The US is different because intern culture has been long-standing between colleges, universities and companies from Wall Street to Washington DC. There is an expectation of starting at the bottom and working your way up through an internship. Internships aren’t necessarily as much about creating employment as they are about teaching skills.

Lauren Berger, author of All Work, No Pay, is the founder and chief executive of internqueen.com, a free resource for students that works with more than 1,000 employers, mostly in the US, and gives advice and tips. Berger knows the landscape. At college she did many internships. “I can definitely understand all perspectives of the argument. I’m a person who had 15 unpaid internships, and they were priceless opportunities that taught me so much,” Berger says.

As for whether interns might be paid, “In the US we’re looking five or 10 years down the line, heading in a direction where all internships could be paid. But we don’t want to lose the purpose of them. It’s not to get a pay cheque but to get valuable experience.”

Berger occasionally comes across small companies that think, “Define an internship: free work – that’s what I need! But the Fortune 500 companies have structured programmes and learning experiences tailored to fit the students’ needs,” says Berger. “Every once in a while you get a start-up or a small company and they want to hire 20 interns instead of employees, and of course that’s wrong.”

Berger points to the Fair Labor Standards Act, which has guidelines that unpaid internships must meet in order to be legally sound. “It’s criticised because it’s a little ambiguous, but I think that the most important thing in there is that an intern should not be directly generating revenue for a company.”

Berger emphasises that an internship isn’t about employment. “Thinking an internship should generate a job is a skewed mindset,” she says. Instead, it should give the intern learning, contacts and experience.

Intern culture creates other underlying issues for specific industries. “One main effect is to make it extremely hard for young people without many family financial resources to enter the media field,” Hamilton Nolan says. “When you already have student loans and you need to work to pay rent, it’s not too easy to take an unpaid internship. This fact is especially damaging in journalism, which should be going out of its way to draw in a wide variety of voices, which translate to good coverage of society as a whole.”

In the UK, one survey has found that just 3 per cent of junior journalists had a working-class parent; the website graduatefog.co.uk draws a link between the necessity for financial support before entering the profession and the proliferation of unpaid internships.

In Ireland the extension of internships from traditionally desirable workplaces, and industries perceived as hard to access , to those perceived to be less desirable was made official by JobBridge.

By creating a Government scheme within what had been an unregulated market – dominated by casual internship schemes, university work placements and more official Fortune 500 company training programmes – State-sponsored internships are now available in many sectors.

JobBridge is creating jobs, according to a review by Indecon this week. (Alan Gray, a managing partner at Indecon, used the study as the basis of a positive analysis that he wrote for one Irish newspaper.)Nearly 17,000 people have taken part in JobBridge. Just over half of respondents finished their internships; 61 per cent of those who completed JobBridge internships secured paid employment. Twenty-six per cent stayed with the company they had interned with, 23 per cent moved to another sector and 12 per cent found paid work within the same sector. At the time of the survey, 23 per cent were still looking for work, 3 per cent had emigrated, 8 per cent were in further education or training, and 5 per cent had completed a stint of short-term employment.

Although the intern culture has become entrenched in American society, and is becoming more so in Europe, Nolan says that it’s not an absolute that it will remain so, although he believes that intern culture has closed off many industries to poor and middle-class people.

“I imagine at some point there will be tighter regulation. I do think that the generation that experienced the unfairness of the system will want to change it once they rise to power,” he says. “I see it much like the minimum wage: companies will always do things that benefit them as long as they can get away with it. It’s up to society (and the industry) collectively to decide that this isn’t something we should accept.”

And the intern queen’s number-one piece of advice for prospective interns? “Walk in every day and think, How can I make the most of this situation? Don’t be the intern who sits in the corner on Facebook.” Unless you’re interning at Facebook, of course.


Do you have an intern story to tell?
We’re looking for your personal accounts. Contact The Irish Times in confidence and tell us: Was your internship a success? Did you get employment out of it? Was your internship easy or difficult to secure? Was it paid or unpaid? Are you currently interning and would you like to tell us about your experience? Email internstories@irishtimes.com or tweet @UnaMullally

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