The internship process is awful, and there’s no solution

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Poncho Tian

Being a junior in college means that I’m on the cusp of what I still consider to be young adulthood: I’ve just turned 21 years old, I have used a Juul once or twice, I still rely on my dad to pay for anything that costs more than $100 and I need to figure out what I want to do with my life. Accomplishing that last task requires somehow bridging the gap between my comparative literature coursework and “valuable work experience.”

Work experience typically comes in the form of an unpaid or low-wage internship that promises to expose you to the industry’s best and equip you with the skills required to succeed in the field. Occidental College’s Hameetman Career Center’s take on internships is similar. Internships provide students with real-world, practical experience that can expand their professional network for future employment and offer the chance to test out interests or talents in an extracurricular environment.

Unfortunately, applying to these internships for me means voluntarily committing to working overtime, often for an unfairly low stipend or merely school credit. When I’ve asked my potential employers how many days a week I can expect to stay late, they tell me it’s “hard to say.” This ambiguity is allowed because no one is actively tracking how most internships are run or even how many interns are in the market now. The system of recruiting current college students and recent graduates — knowing that most are willing to work for free or a paltry wage — is unfair. While I can’t protest it by not participating, major corporations who can afford to ought to rethink the internship process.

With newly-relaxed laws from the Department of Labor (DOL) that seem to cater to companies offering unpaid internships, hiring managers have amped up the number of intern positions they’d like to fill. While it was initially common for low-level positions in the creative sector to be unpaid, the trend continues to seep into other parts of the working world. Government agencies, law firms and other profitable institutions seem to be replacing their entry-level workers with a revolving population of interns who are willing to work for less — or nothing — in exchange for essential experience to beef up their resume. Many previous interns have sued their former employers for exploiting the impersonal expectation that internships are more for “learning” than for earning an income.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) in 2017, 41 percent of their respondents said they would increase intern hiring that year. Coupled with the new DOL laws and a bigger-than-ever nationwide class of 2018, I can only expect that percentage to increase this year. And while this increase in the positions offered across industries seems like it might help more students secure the internships they need, there are more students than ever vying for the same spots.

I’ve sent in approximately 18 internship applications so far this semester and heard back from two. One internship, based in New York City, interviewed me over Google Hangouts last week and inquired as to why I couldn’t come for an in-person interview — after I said I attend Occidental College and am from Los Angeles. The interview was for an unpaid position as an administrative assistant, yet I was expected to travel to NYC to meet the hiring manager. I didn’t hear back from them and don’t expect to — mostly because hiring managers don’t have time to respond to rejected applications. I’m applying, getting rejected early on and being left hanging for months while the top candidates are being picked up immediately.

Michelle Levitt (junior) said that “[the internship process] sucks because you might be investing so much of your time and energy into something that might be wasted. It’s almost a necessary evil that’s part of the process.”

The last straw in both my applications and my complaints is the cover letter. I learned that the cover letter serves as an introduction to the person behind the resume. This somehow rang true for my administrative assistant application, where I had to write about how translating Latin texts and speaking two languages other than English makes me a valuable candidate for stapling briefs and buying paperclips. My application should be a strong enough indication that I’m interested in performing free labor without 500 words expressing my deep passion for it.

The reality is that while I’m well-aware that my application probably won’t go past the first round, I’m still going to send it in. Perhaps because I know that many interns get picked up as employees after their term, because robots may soon be able to write paragraphs or because I simply don’t know another way to be productive at this juncture of my life.

If internships are necessary, they at least shouldn’t be evil.

Varty Yahjian is a junior Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture major and can be reached at vyahjian@oxy.edu.