Internships are originally a good idea. A win-win situation. Young unskilled people are given an opportunity to gain practical experience while employers train possible future employees and have a helping hand for a few weeks. That’s the theory. I did many internships during the past five years, more than usual I guess. Internships were the key that I thought would open me the door to my dream job. I was so eager to learn that I forgot to stop at the point where I wasn’t unskilled anymore. That was probably my fault, but it also opened my eyes. Today I think the whole system of internships is flawed. My own behaviour can be seen equally as a result and part of the problem.
You probably all know the cliché of the intern who has to make coffee and fulfills only the most annoying tasks. I never had such an internship. On the contrary, I was thrown in at the deep end several times with important tasks that were clearly beyond me. It made me learn very fast. I will not belittle the use these internships had for my personal and professional development. They were challenging and great experiences and I am still thankful to have had them.
But. The big “but”. They were all unpaid. And with unpaid I mean completely without pay. That means zero money for a fulltime job. You could say it was my own fault that I didn’t complain. That I didn’t choose a different company for my internship. You might say behaviour like mine was part of the problem. If we let the companies bully us, if we accept to work without money, they will never stop, right? This is only partly true. What we have here is a classical Prisoner’s Dilemma, a coordination problem. Of course I could refuse an unpaid internship. But I know very well that there is always someone waiting in line just behind be who will gladly accept it. The only one I damage is me, by reducing my career options.
I only speak for University students and maybe only for those of the arts or social sciences who in general have bigger difficulties to find a job after graduation. But as the number of graduates in all fields is rising constantly in Germany, I guess everyone is plagued by fear of the future at some point. We are convinced that our prospects on the job market are almost zero if we don’t have practical experience. So we better do internships and we better strain ourselves because the certificate we get afterwards will be a complicated structure of code that classifies our skills. You would guess that “she completed all tasks to our satisfaction” would mean you did a good job? Sorry, it means you were below average. Just add one or two little words like “she always completed all tasks to our utter satisfaction” – tadaa you’re the greatest!
Ok, these are details. But they reflect the mentality of our performance society. Young people like me think they have to either work without payment to gain experience or will never have a good career. You might be lucky and find a company that pays you, or you have to bite the bullet.
In Germany internships of a longer duration than one month normally have to be paid – except if they are part of your education. And as almost all universities include obligatory internships in their study programs, companies will never be short of willing unpaid interns. It’s not a coincidence that you’ll find a sentence like this on most websites: “Because of the high number of applications we receive we are only able to cover obligatory internships.” How generous of them to prefer the students who have no other chance than doing an internship! Very generous. This will even increase now with the new minimum wage law that came into effect this year. It says interns have to be paid 8,50 Euro per hour like every other worker – EXCEPT if this internship is part of an education. At least this might put an end to the practice of some companies – especially little companies in the media business – to use long-time interns as a cheap alternative to real workers, which will be a good thing in the long run, I guess.
Maybe I should have seen my own value and demand my right for a salary. But I have the strong impression that if I had done so, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Maybe one day all oppressed interns will rise for rebellion and I will happily wave a flag with them. But until this day I know: If you put me back in time right now I would always act the same again. Because it’s my future.