In a truly disturbing blog post at TNR, Timothy Noah has identified one of those national trends that shows where this country is headed, and not in a nice way: internships for sale. As Noah points out, private schools are selling internships in charity auctions; obviously, this gives privileged kids a pretty good leg up in life.
As Noah writes:
Inevitably, the internship-selling racket has slipped the surly bonds of philanthropy and entered the for-profit marketplace. An outfit called the University of Dreams guarantees placement or your money back. Summer-internship fees (the University of Dreams prefers to call it “tuition”) range from $5,499 to $9,499. For 3 percent extra, you can pay on an installment plan. The interns have been placed with firms like Hill and Knowlton and Smith Barney (did a rich, dumb intern start the credit crunch?) in Barcelona, Chicago, Costa Rica, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Sydney, and Washington, D.C. For-profit consultants like Fast Track Internships are extending the principle of SAT prep to internships by teaching marginally literate students how to polish their résumés and cover letters and by guiding them to potential summer employers. Like the University of Dreams, Fast Track Internships offers a money-back guarantee. Its Web site boasts that it can tap into 85 percent of all internships that are never advertised, a proposition that suggests divine omniscience. Prices range from $799 for an unpaid internship to $999 for a paid internship to $1,999 for a full-time job.
$1000 for an internship? One thing is clear: Tom Sawyer lives. Internships in fence whitewashing are available once more in this land of the free.
In one sense, there’s little to be done about the internship craze. People with money and connections will always use them to help their kids get a better start in life — what, after all, is the point of money and connections if they can’t help the people you love most in the world? If you drive this process underground, it won’t go away; the world will merely become a little bit less transparent and the spawn of the plutocrats will still somehow start the race of life just a few yards closer to the finish line than the rest of us.
The problem of internships is actually a complicated one. Not everyone has the fortitude to treat them with the Spartan discipline we instill at Via Meadia: feed them on scraps, house them in kennels, beat them when they misbehave, and sometimes beat them when they behave just to keep them on their toes. In less Dickensian workplaces than the Via Meadia sweatshops (where Chinese labor practices meet American college grads), an internship is a way to learn about the job market, acquire basic skills, learn office protocol and etiquette, and make connections that can help you take your next steps.
In other words, in today’s world the non-Via Meadia type of internship is increasingly becoming a necessary part of the educational process. School no longer prepares kids to either get or keep jobs, and internships are springing up to fill the gap. This is partly an indictment of our educational system and partly a statement about how the job market is changing.
First, there’s the educational problem. The huge amounts of time that American adolescents and young adults spend in class don’t actually prepare them in any meaningful way for the job world. Our educational system is horrendously inefficient and glacially slow. In most of our schools, including the “good” ones, kids learn at what by historic standards is a snail’s pace and waste untold days and weeks on trivial assignments amid the tyranny of low expectations.
Most of the framers of the American Constitution had, at most, A BA degree, and many college graduates in those days finished college in their teens. Our adolescents and young adults have had much more money spent on their formation than previous generations have done, but on the whole they have been taught less. Some of this loss is academic: American education today tends to demand little from most students by world or historical standards and to be poorly focused — lots of fluff courses, little orchestration of learning experiences, many scatter shot learning experiences and very few thoughtful efforts to construct a meaningful introduction to the complicated world in which we live.
But some of what our kids have lost is non-academic; while in some ways (sex, drugs, media decadence) young Americans are immersed in the wild side of life — at least on TV — from an early age, when it comes to the workplace and adult expectations they are often wrapped in cotton wool until their early to mid-twenties. Partly because school drags on forever, and partly because most parents now work away from home so that kids don’t grow up watching people work and learning what that’s like, kids now come to the end of an unconscionably long, excessively expensive, poorly designed academic experience without the slightest idea about how to work or even what work is.
Many have few or no office skills beyond simple typing for which anyone is willing to pay, by and large, in a standard commercial or non-profit environment. Under these conditions, internships become an essential and necessary part of education, and some of the justice questions that apply to school access now apply to internships as well.
There is another reason why internships matter more than they used to: the changing nature of the upper middle class job market. It has always been an advantage to have an ‘in’ with a particular company, but in the golden age of the blue social model things were a little different. Many companies had standard training and employee programs. Large local employers held on-campus interviews; in much of America you knew who the big local employers were and what they were looking for. In the post World War Two era, when the economy was growing rapidly, law firms, universities, major industrial and consumer companies and virtually all the professions were looking to hire a number of young people for lifetime employment.
Discrimination limited most of the good job possibilities to white males. If you were a white male college grad with a pulse and without a police record, senior year in college was not going to be that stressful a year for you. Most of the large employers had training programs; you did your internship, so to speak, after you were hired for the job and not before. Women went into the typing pool by and large; minorities came in through the back door.
What we have now is a much more dynamic, competitive, chaotic and stressful labor market. The major newspapers, magazines and publishing houses are no longer bringing significant numbers of young people into elaborate training programs every year. Tech companies and energy companies have their own unique patterns, but among the companies that hire young liberal arts graduates, things have changed. Young people are often more mobile than they were a generation ago, so there is greater competition in the hotter cities. The end of old fashioned anti-minority, anti-female discrimination means that talent of all genders and colors is now competing for the slots that white male talent once pretty much had for itself. (Whether a new anti-white male discrimination has appeared in its place is a subject for another post.)
Beyond this, something else has changed: upper middle class professional life is looking less like the Prussian bureaucracy these days and more like the William Morris Talent Agency. In a classic, Prussian blue bureaucracy, the organization is fixed and the sytem doesn’t easily bend. Come in as a typist, and you get promoted to become first a secretary, then an executive secretary and then you follow your boss’ career. Come in a mail room guy and you might get promoted to some other service function. Come in as a junior executive, and you move up the executive ladder.
These days, many workplaces and industries are much less predictable. More and more people start in the mailroom and scramble up as best they can. Getting a job and launching a career in many places these days is less like applying to GM’s young executive program in 1955 and more like trying to break into Hollywood.
On the level of policy we can wring our hands, gnash our teeth and bewail the passing of the good old days while trying to think about some alternatives, but for kids trying to get a start in life, internships are auditions for parts they hope to get. They are a kind of extended job interview — a callback — and young people are often desperate to get them.
Increasingly, many colleges are doing what we do at Bard; our BGIA program in New York (open to non-Bard students as well) has over the years developed a rich network of employers who take BGIA students for semester long internships. (Students take night classes and earn credit during the semester as well.)
There are real problems with the internship system. Students whose parents can’t afford to put them up in New York, Washington or Los Angeles while also paying various placement fees have a real disadvantage compared to young Thurston Howell VI. And parents who can’t reach powerful corporate tycoons or snooty NGO and foundation execs on the phone can’t arrange the same opportunities for their kids that the A-List families arrange. There are questions about whether interns should earn minimum wage — though I suspect that many companies and most non-profits would drastically cut back on internships if costs went up. (At Via Meadia there has been some loose talk about introducing a “more gruel” policy, but for now we are holding the line.)
Given the changes in the job market, internships — including unpaid ones — are here to stay and we ought to be thinking about how to make the most of them. I would like to see them develop more along the lines of apprenticeships: in the old days parents paid master craftsmen to take on their offspring as apprentices and train them in a craft. There ought to be ways to bring some kind of updated apprenticeship program into the mainstream of American education. This might also involve training and the development of a clearer set of expectations about how people make sure the interns in their charge actually learn something.
This is part of the deep restructuring the American educational system needs: young people on the whole should be spending less time in the classroom, but doing more and doing it more intensively while they are there, and they should be spending more time before they finish school learning what work is all about.
Internships are opportunities for young people to learn what they need to know and meet who they need to know in order to explore the work world and find their own place in it. They are becoming more necessary all the time; we need to make sure that low income and unconnected people have a shot at some good ones, and we need to think much more seriously than most of us yet have about how we can make the internship system work.