Editor’s Note: David Berning is an intern at Big Think.
As the sun sets on yet another flip-flop summer, the seasonal tide of temporary employment has begun to recede. Those of us who are returning to college now have to come to terms with the sad realization that we’ll spend the next nine months of our lives drowning in academics. But the fear is offset by the excitement associated with the start of the new school year. Our three-month hiatus from school has served its purpose.
With everyone returning from their respective summer apprenticeships, students are bound to be exchanging stories about their most recent professional experiences, and increasingly these conversations are layered with subtle undertones of disingenuousness. Students are quick to assess their relative professional superiority or inferiority on the basis of their latest summer employer.
Behind this phenomenon — which I call internship-snobbery — is a deep anxiety. Wary of an increasingly competitive labor market, students engage in the subconscious act of hypercritical inquiry in an attempt to “size-up” their immediate competition.
No longer is a college degree a significantly differentiating factor in the minds of hiring managers who, with pools of well-qualified applicants, have refocused their efforts on finding conferred students with ample professional experience. For the ambitious undergraduate, taking that conventional summer job as a camp counselor may no longer suffice to prove your professional competency. Not just any internship, but a competitive, impressive internship is now a necessary ingredient in the seemingly endless recipe for ensured employment.
An even more inconvenient truth? Most internships are unpaid. This fact has prompted questions over the legality and, more importantly, the practicality of internships. Are they exploitative? Do they really help students score better jobs in the future? Are they worth forgoing a whole summer’s worth of wages?
These questions (and many others) have been addressed at length in recent news articles. Columnists, employers and even college students all want to provide their own unique perspectives into this ongoing debate that has seemingly shifted the dynamics of the labor market.
Those in favor of internships regard them with the same saintly reverence also ascribed to a college degree, while those strictly opposed see internships as exploitative and poor indicators of one’s overall competency and work ethic. The fervor on both sides is exemplified by a New York Times discussion forum on the issue:
Reader 1: When our small business sees unpaid internship on a kid’s resume, it’s a red flag that the applicant lacks real world savvy and a realistic appreciation of working for a living.
Reader 2: I think you’re in a distinct minority.
Reader 1: Better pickings for us then, but don’t be so sure. Times are changing fast and hard workers are harder to find among the growing slacker class. Parents who underwrite their kids’ hollow resume-burnishing exercises are more than likely squandering retirement savings.
Reader 2: Reader 1, I actually think you couldn’t be more wrong. For whatever reason, the world is moving in a direction that is far more credentialist than in the past. It used to be that being smart and hard working were enough, but now you also have to have jumped through all the appropriate hoops.
It seems young students face a difficult decision: accept a menial, income-producing job or seek out a professional college internship. Sadly, there is no close-form solution to this dilemma. No one can say which is more likely to help you land your dream job in the end.
My opinion, having been an intern myself? While internships do offer incredible access to many other professional opportunities, not holding one does not automatically limit your future success. Employers are attracted to the person holding the resume and not the resume itself.
What matters is that you use every opportunity you get (internship or summer job) as a chance to improve your professional qualities (i.e. communication skills, demeanor, eye-contact, etc.). Then leverage these self-improvements with a rigorous work ethic in school. This combination will make you an outstanding job candidate, even in one of the harshest job markets for new graduates in recent memory.