High-schoolers' free labor: Why the internship problem will get even worse

It's already hard enough to get a worthwhile internship. Now a huge new mass of eager applicants is emerging

Published May 22, 2014 7:19PM (EDT)

        (Reuters/Brian Snyder)
(Reuters/Brian Snyder)

Headlines about America's economic caste of coffee-getters have painted a more rosy picture, recently. Lowly interns stood up to giants like Fox in court — and won. Unpaid workers are supposedly now protected by law against sexual harassment in New York, Oregon and Washington  D.C.  due to the closing of a decades-old loophole.

At a glance, these victories seem to signify that the torrent of unfair conditions interns face is dwindling to a trickle. Companies are starting to view their internships not as a source of free labor to take advantage of, but as talent pipelines. The corporate world, according to New York University career coach Allison Cheston, is headed “in the direction of internships being paid positions eventually.”

While such advances are long overdue, awarding interns basic human rights does not mean we can dust our hands off and declare the problem solved. The days of the struggling intern suffering through innumerable hardships to “get their foot in the door” and other clichés are far from over, especially now that high school students are entering the fray.

One high school student named Max Novick is only 16, yet, according to NBC News, has a résumé that spans four pages, all thanks to internships. Another student, Katie Gavares, reportedly spent three weeks interning in England, studying education. These two aren't isolated examples of hungry, young go-getters amid a sea of lazy, Tumblr-surfing teens. High schoolers are ditching the classroom for the cubicle in droves.

comprehensive study published earlier this year by Millennial Branding — a research and consulting firm — in conjunction with Internships.com demonstrated how deeply internship culture has pervaded high schools across the country. Nearly 80 percent of high school students are “either extremely or very interested” in working as an unpaid intern (or “volunteer” to use the study's semantics). Half of the 300-plus employers polled are creating internships specifically for intrepid high schoolers. And it's not just the private sector that's getting involved. The mayor of Dallas, Mike Rawlings, founded a program that finds students ages 16 and up internships at local businesses. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich created a $1 million project offering grants to companies that take on high school-age interns.

This deluge of hormone-laden labor won't just rock the boat, it'll capsize it.

Employers already pay interns a low wage for the amount of work they do. One manager derisively referred to an intern as a “22-22-22,” as in a 22-year-old who's willing to work 22-hour days for $22,000 a year. With waves of high school students entering the internship market, why hire a 22-22-22 when you can hire a 16-year-old and pay them in exposure, experience and exhaustion? Internships are soon to become a sine qua non for admittance to top and even mid-tier colleges, where the competition grows fiercer each year. Teens will do as many internships as possible (or their helicopter parents will make them do as many as possible) to impresses the right school, just like 20-somethings will do as many internships as possible to impresses the right company. The only difference between the two demographics is the price. Teens come cheaper since they don't have to support themselves; money is nice but not necessary.

The “we want our interns to learn” shtick that has become popular in light of recent lawsuits is a candy-coated cocktail of P.R. and legal posturing. There's no reason to think this'll change when three-quarters of America's teenagers begin seeking internships in the near future. ProPublica recently started cataloging detailed internship reviews, specifically those in entertainment and the arts. The tasks “tomorrow's CEOs” were assigned with included getting coffee, mailing packages, photocopying, delivering sandwiches, filling out spreadsheets and picking up dog feces. If job-seeking 20-somethings are reduced to office minutiae, what sort of menial depravities will employers inflict upon teenagers who don't expect a job after the end of the internship, who are there simply for the ever-nebulous concept of “professional experience” and a bullet-point on a college application?

If conditions don't worsen, they certainly won't improve with high school students flooding an already incomprehensibly overcrowded market with even cheaper labor. Aspiring interns already have to resort to over-the-top, gimmicky résumés to even be considered for an unpaid gig. Now that the Intern Nation — a strata of jobless jacks of all trades who work themselves to death shining shoes for a chance to break into their chosen industry — is absorbing high schoolers, the competition will become that much more cutthroat. The country's current “permaterns” (horrifying newspeak for permanent interns) might find themselves not only out of jobs, but out of internships as well.

Sadly, teenage internships coming to prominence will further widen the chasm between privileged and underprivileged communities. It's not unrealistic to think students from the wealthier, more prestigious high schools will land internships while students from the lesser schools will not. The consequences of this could be life changing. If you don't intern in high school, you'll be underqualified for internships in college, which means you'll be underqualified for post-grad internships, which means you'll be competing with candidates who have up to six years' worth of experience (and networking) by the time you graduate college. All the while you have no significant experience or contacts to speak of since you couldn't intern as a teenager because you attended a lesser school district.

Sadder still is that the trials present-day interns face will more than likely amount to naught since some employers believe interning multiple times means you're less qualified, not more. If you belonged in the industry, you'd have been hired instead of being shown the door, their reasoning goes. Furthermore, unpaid internships currently don't lead to full-time employment. The vaunted “experience” you earn from an unpaid internship only makes you about 2 percent more likely to get hired than someone who has never interned.

The future of internships is therefore one of career-oriented chaos, with high school kids, college kids and recent (and not so recent) grads all ready to murder one another for an unpaid three-month gig where they truck around a sandwich cart and pick up their supervisor's laundry. The internship system in the United States is slowly metamorphosing into one of quasi-feudalistic apprenticeship, where you must choose a field early on and are doomed if you stray from it. Only, instead of blacksmiths, cobblers and bell-makers, we're producing phone answerers, dog walkers and shit shovelers.

By Matt Saccaro

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