Modern Times: The Internship Exploitation

A university education is no longer a guarantee for job security, every recent graduate can tell you that. I am aware of this fact too. Nobody said it was going to be easy with a social science degree and the crisis still in swing. Still, no one ever said it was going to be this hard, either. Times have changed, and since companies discovered the concept of exploiting young, highly educated people in internship schemes, I doubt there will be a significant improvement in the near future.

Internships are usually the first step into job life, the first building block to your future career. That is, if employers even consider an internship as job experience – which they often don’t. It’s frustrating to have a degree, and be faced with worse working conditions than you did before entering university. Little or no remuneration and long hours in exchange for what some employers don’t even consider real job experience are a reality for many of us who intern at institutions and companies all over the world. (Graduate schemes with decent pay and upward mobility don’t really exists outside the UK yet.)

What bugs me the most about it is that the public seems to know nothing about the questionable working conditions graduates and students are facing these days.

The death of a Bank of America intern in London last August certainly got some attention, but was swept under the rug by his employer, claiming the intern – who is understood to have received a very decent payment for his work – wasn’t required to work such long hours (over 15 every day), and that it wasn’t their fault if people put their individual ambitions or their desperations to get jobs above their health.

I don’t want to lump all employers together, as there are certainly decent ones who provide their interns with good structures and follow labour protection laws. Still, some companies are just exploiting people’s fears of unemployment to avoid having to actually pay for what their work is worth.

I recently found an advertisement for an unpaid 6-months internship with a major international organisation, that required candidates to have completed a Master’s degree programme in Political Science or International Relations, to have at least two years of job experience (internships do not count as job experience), to have good knowledge of CMS and HTML programming, very good knowledge of Adobe Creative Suite, proven budget managing and PR experience. Fluency in English, German and French was a requirement, additional languages considered an asset.

Now, while I don’t want to doubt that an individual with all these qualifications exists, I’d like to point out that the job description forgot to mention one more precondition for getting the position: rich parents. Located in one of the most expensive cities in Europe, times will be hard if you don’t have a steady income and cannot rely on any other financial aid – or parents who don’t mind helping you out. Again.

In my opinion, long-term unpaid internships foster a new kind of elite. The system only works for those who already enjoy financial stability to a degree where it’s no problem to work without payment for a couple of months. For the rest of us, who wait tables or stock supermarket shelves to get by, underemployment will probably be the order of the day, until the economy and the job market significantly improve. And if you really have all the qualifications listed above – wouldn’t you deserve to be paid for your work?