Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The citizens of Intern Nation raise the alarm

I have just finished Ross Perlin's Intern Nation (how to earn nothing and to learn little in the brave new economy) as I am setting out for an internship in China. It was a sobering experience, considering that I am doing what Perlin would a complete waste of time and resources.

One of the problems that Ross Perlin has with internships is that society (including business, fashion, entertainment, NGOs, the education sector and governments) don’t really understand what internships are and that leaves people open to exploitation and abuse.

He gives many examples of internships that are unpaid and give the participant few opportunities for skills development or exposure to the key business of the organisation. He argues that internships are often touted as nothing more than an introduction to a shallow culture of an organisation or industry.

He regards this concept of exposure as being problematic when he says, ‘anything that bring “exposure” can now be a learning experience – flipping burgers for Disney, having a chat at the water cooler, spending an afternoon  at the copying machine’ (2011, 94). Unlike medical internships or “Articles” for newly graduated lawyers in the legal profession, without a tradition of providing real structured training to graduates, many interns fail to get the great learning experience and student-to-professional transition that they were hoping for.

Because of the misunderstandings surrounding internships, Perlin believes that their vague and unstructured nature allows both employers and interns to spin them to suit their own agenda.

Part of an employer’s agenda may often be to save money. This point was a major part of Perlin’s book and looks at the common trend of replacing paid staff by interns and it became clear that in this current economic climate with companies cutting back on staff, in many circumstances internships are used as cheap labour.

So what usually happens is that employers might spin an internship out to be this great learning experience but actually it is just doing the “grunt work” that is usually done by a paid employee because why pay someone to do it when you can get an intern to do it for nothing? Saving a salary just by putting a positive spin on the internship!

The intern on the other hand, might have fallen for the spined internship and, having realised that they were conned, continue the cycle of spin and writing it on their CV in a way that makes it sound better than it is.  

Despite the book being a reality check of the world of internship that I am currently engaged in, I thought it was a good analysis of the problems of unpaid programs that aim to assist you transition from university to the world of work. 

However, author Ross Perlin failed to dedicate enough time on why people sacrifice so much to do unpaid internships even if they offer so little in return. 

It was only in the 'afterwords' where he discussed the decline of employers willing to take new graduates (or even school leavers or career changers) and train them up rather than what usually happens now where they choose to hire people with lots of experience. Perlin notes that ‘unlike the “ageism” which affects some older workers, the closure of the workplace to young people without “experience” has become absolute and systemic, the disappearance of the entry-level job a primary symptom. The paradox of raised in Intern Nation remains unanswered: how do we get experience if we don’t already have experience?’ (2011, 227). His offers few alternatives and what he does offer, as we shall see later in this blog is simplistic and naive.   
The demise of the entry level job has also lead to more competition for positions further up the career ladder and therefore if you have just finished university and there a few opportunities available to get a foot in the door and learn to apply your "trade". So you soon realise that you have to do something such as internships as an attempt to address this problem of gaining experience and to give you an edge in an uber competitive job market. 

This is why I have chosen to pay a sum of money to intern in China, so that I may address a regular complaint by potential employers that I ‘don’t have enough experience’.

Internships, I am promised, are the key to getting the experience required to land a job.

So, why to people still fall for them?

Perlin cites, Economist Greg Caplin’s argument: ‘you get paid what you’re worth, and when you start out you are not worth very much. You’ve got to invest in human capital. People are willing to work for nothing because they are going to get a huge pay off in the future’   (2011, 128)

If you have little experience and employers are not willing to give you the foot in door that you need, what else are you going to do other than pay for the privilege to work unpaid in order to get some experience behind you?

Perlin sums it up well by noting that ‘applying human capital theory to internships at least allows for a guarded optimism: students and their families may feel compelled to invest heavily in education and skills-building, but they are rewarded in the end – hard work always wins out.’ (2011, 129) It is human nature and that people want to hold on to something and hope for the best.

With the job market not so kind to those without work experience or access to polished “personal spin machines” people put all their hope in to something that will help them to signify that they can do the job.  

In regards to my adventure over the next six weeks, I am sure that Perlin would not approve of what I am doing. He would tell me to ‘Figure out how to turn a job at the mall into something with a future: talking honestly about your ambition to your supervisor, interacting with customers, pressing for better work conditions and career advancement. Strike out and develop a new skill – whether   it’s taking a Spanish class or learning from a friend how to fix cars – and turn it into a career opportunity.’ (2011, 205).  While it is important not to devalue working in the local shopping centre or taking an evening class but I don’t see this advice working for those new grads wanting to gain employment outside the area that they used to fund their university studies.

While doing jobs to pay the rent and working on informal projects with friends are the catalyst of developing a large number of skills but in this day and age I doubt that they have much value in the job market. With so much emphasis on, not only on achievement and developing an impressive portfolio of experiences but also the charisma to make this collection sparkle like a football field of diamonds, the everyday experiences like doing a job to pay the rent, raising a family or helping out in your family’s shop doesn’t have the same level of impressiveness to potential employer.  

Internships have also crept into the world of volunteering. With the students everywhere wanting to get ahead, volunteering has lost its value in the market. Once volunteering with the Red Cross and the RSPCA was an indicator that you were motivated and a team player or being a leader in your local Girl Guides highlighted your leadership and interpersonal skills but nowadays this is not enough. For a good example of this check out this site.

As a result, organisations now promote volunteer placements as internships so that they attract students who are desperate to take part in activities that show that they are motivated, keen and capable.

You can see the debate played out in the America where spending the summer as a camp councillor is becoming seen as time not as well spent as spending the same time interning.  Just click here and here

People end up doing internships because they perceive them to having currency in the job market even though in reality they might not.

But as I leave sleepy old Perth for the big smoke of Shanghai, I hope that this internship doesn’t turn out to be another empty experience but an intense learning encounter that I’ll remember for a lifetime.

Perlin, Ross. Intern Nation – How to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy. (London and New York: Verso, 2011)  

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