When I got my first paycheck, I felt like a damn CEO; I was going places. I had a job, a real job, not just babysitting or dog-walking. Granted, my immensely glamorous job was just putting cream cheese on people’s bagels, but I didn’t care; I was a bagel-dressing superstar. Fast forward a few years, and that feeling of satisfaction has been replaced by a soul-squishing cycle of unpaid internships. I’ve had four so far, so I’m pretty much a collector at this point. My professional opinion? Getting paid at a job, even if you’re slathering cream cheese on bagels, beats working for free by a landslide.
One internship with a magazine required that each month I unpack, catalogue and organize hundreds of items of clothing only to send every last thing back four weeks later when that issue’s photo shoots were over. I did other things for that internship that were fun and educational, but this unpacking/repacking task was the type of misery so pure and mind-numbing that no one could try to paint it as anything else. Unfortunately, it was a significant part of the job.
Now, I was at the bottom of the totem pole for a reason. In exchange for the job experience I was seriously lacking, I could sure as hell pick up some coffee for the real editors. All of us unpaid interns get by each day looking at that light at the end of the tunnel. With every menial task we complete, we remind ourselves that we’re doing this for a reason and that all of our work will pay off.
Except, I’m not so sure it will. According to a 2013 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), if a friend of mine completed no internships in college, he would have a 35.2 percent chance of getting a job offer after graduation. With my stacked resume of unpaid internships, I would have a whopping 37 percent chance of getting a job offer. All the coffee runs and unpacking and repacking and writing and applying for less than two percent of a better chance over someone who spent his summer having fun at the beach. Each day that light at the end of the tunnel is looking more like a mirage.
But my lucky friends who work paid internships have a 63.1 percent chance of getting hired; now those are some odds I could get behind. A lot of people think that getting paid is just a bonus for an internship, and that the main point is to get relevant skills for your chosen career path. However, according to NACE, paid interns complete the majority of job-relevant tasks, while unpaid interns do the brunt of the brainless busy work. So if I’m not getting paid, I’m not getting experience and it’s not going to help me get hired after graduation…why should I even bother?
While I wish my internships had given me a more job-specific education, I can’t say they were a waste of time. I have a lot of useless skills, like hula-hooping and making paper people chains, but my unpaid internships gave me skills I never would have thought to learn: answering a phone properly, taking a message quickly, remembering how people take their coffee (it matters) and even just showing up on time. If nothing else, internships taught me that sometimes you have to do stuff just because someone tells you to, which is a fact of life in any job, paid or unpaid.
Here’s the thing, though. The skills I learned from my unpaid internships are skills people learn at paid internships and even just summer jobs. So if you ask me, taking that job as a lifeguard, camp counselor or waitress is going to teach you way more than just how to rescue someone from water, lead a sing-a-long or list the day’s specials — and you’ll also get paid.
A friend of mine, who vehemently objects to bottled water, has a motto: “Never pay for what you can get for free.” Employers everywhere are singing the same tune, but there’s a solution for us unpaid interns; don’t be “free.” As billions of bottled water purchases can prove, someone is always willing to shell out for what other people are giving away.