No experience, no job: The failures and successes of a college intern
Coffee fetcher. Errand runner. Fledgling. The title “intern” rarely carries a positive image.
“A lot of the time, the term ‘intern’ has the negative connotation that you don’t know anything as a college student,” senior public relations and advertising major Megan Bauer said. “You have to put yourself in a position where you have to be taken seriously or they think of you as someone who’s just starting and who isn’t really knowledgeable.”
And she would know. Upon graduating from the University of Oregon this spring, Bauer will have performed five internships and attained two professional job titles in the career field of her choice.
Although her personal experience is driven primarily by the intrinsic motivation to explore her future career prospects, Bauer’s resume reflects the kind of rigorous extracurricular agenda demanded by the modern white-collar work force.
In an increasingly competitive job market, impressive classroom work, glowing professor recommendations or an impressive grade point average can no longer be counted on to guarantee college graduates a jump start in their desired career field. Instead, job applicants are expected to have professional experience under their belts before hitting the job market.
Unfortunately, this often means working for free, and bearing the brunt of the office jokes.
Steve Bagwell, managing editor of the Yamhill Valley News-Register, would never consider hiring an employee without real-world intern or professional experience. In order to impress veterans of the journalism industry, he says, it’s necessary to demonstrate professional drive and dedication, regardless of whether or not it comes with a paycheck.
“The chances that your first internship will be paid are very slim. You’ve pretty much got to do an unpaid (internship) to get into the running,” Bagwell said. “If you’re not doing internships and you’re not working with campus media, you’re not setting the bar for what it takes.”
In response to this type of employer mindset, the U.S. Department of Labor announced in April of 2010 six guidelines used to regulate unpaid internships, drawing a fine line between voluntary, educational work and bona-fide slave labor. Among these restrictions are the stipulations that internship experience must reflect learning found in an “educational,” rather than industrial environment, that an employer can’t benefit disproportionately as a direct result of an intern’s labor and that both parties have agreed upon the terms of an uncompensated contract for the benefit of the intern, with no promise of a future paid position.
Some employers find these restrictions an undue limitation on their ability to hire interns.
“In this job you learn by doing, not watching,” said Joe Beach, editor of Salem’s Capital Press, an agricultural newspaper. “I think that you, as a student or reporter who gets experience, should have the power to decide whether you want to work for free or not.”
Despite the willingness — and sometimes even desperation — of students to gain experience, Beach refuses to take on unpaid interns. Although he’d like to help educate as many fledgling reporters as possible, he simply doesn’t have the funds to recruit more than a few paid interns and he’d rather not face federal retribution for an inability to pay every reporter who wants to contribute.
For students, this only increases the pressure.
“I knew that if you didn’t have an internship under your belt when you graduated, you wouldn’t get a job,” UO alumna Emily Jaffe said. “I knew that it was incredibly competitive in where you worked and what internships you got.”
Despite the hesitation of her parents, and the fact that it meant living at home as a poor college student, it was this competition that pushed Jaffe to take an unpaid internship in her hometown of Los Angeles in the summer of 2012. As a “web development” intern, she spent her days fetching coffee for company executives, with her own gas money.
After that, Jaffe participated in a paid internship in Portland in which she was paid little, demanded to work late hours on quick-turn around projects on short notice, and caught in the middle of a war between two conflicting supervisors.
Despite her unfortunate experiences, Jaffe believes that things turned out for the best. After graduating from the UO at the end of fall term 2012, she took a job at the PR firm that she interned for in LA — where her boss was so impressed by her dedication during her unpaid internship that he offered her a bonus at the end of the summer — and she also received a job offer from the firm in Portland, which she promptly declined.
In her opinion, the banality of the internship is a necessity that’s almost impossible to escape.
“An internship is a sacrifice,” Jaffe said. “You know you’re going to be a poor college student no matter what. But you don’t want to be a poor college student after you graduate. It’s definitely important to take those internships.”
Bauer never had to go on coffee runs. However, as a financially independent student, she has had to learn to manage part time jobs and unpaid professional experience in order to stay ahead in her career field. Unfortunately, she has also had the bitter experience of having to relinquish a renowned internship experience for the sake of her wallet.
When an opportunity arose to intern for the summer at Buzzmedia, a PR group in Los Angeles, financial restraints forced Bauer to pass it up, despite its networking possibilities.
“It’s a good opportunity because they work with a lot of celebrities and it’s a big name. It would look amazing on a resume,” Bauer said. “I just didn’t think there was any way possible for me to move down there and work for 30 or 40 hours a week and not be paid. I just couldn’t afford it.”
Two days after walking at graduation on June 17, Bauer will begin her sixth — and hopefully final — professional internship. After completing years of public relations and advertising work, Bauer is confident in her abilities to start out as an entry-level employee. She recognizes that a career-oriented internship with esteemed PR firm Waggener Edstrom Worldwide was too good to pass up, despite the fact that it means donning the title of “intern” once again.
In the end, it all boils down to the job prospects.
“It’s a little bit hard for me because I know that I’m ready for entry level, but I know that it will be a good opportunity,” Bauer said of her coming internship. “I think that I’m still a little disappointed that I’m starting with an internship, but they promote you after three months to an entry level position … So that’s why I decided to take it.”