By PRCO Intern Chelsea Dole
I’ve had my fair share of jobs. I started working part-time in high school as a theatre attendant, a farmer’s market vendor, and a barista. In fact, the first thing I did after moving into my freshman dorms at UC Berkeley was drop off my resume around town.
These jobs have taught me a lot: the importance of being on time, how to work with people from different backgrounds, how to solve problems creatively, and, perhaps most importantly, how to stay patient and calm, no matter how stressful the day becomes.
Useful skills, yes, but none of my jobs so far have positioned me for a job relevant to my professional goals when I graduate this spring. To land employment that pays more than minimum wage I had to pass one major hurdle: I needed to find an internship.
The summer internship is an institution, a resume bullet point as common as your alma mater. A study by the Chronicle of Higher Education indicates that employers value internship experience over academic experience or GPA, and that “an internship is the single most important credential for recent college graduates to have on their resume.”
Within this statistic sits an unspoken rule: in order to get ahead, you have to be able to work for free.
Unpaid internships compound the debts many students take on to finance their education and reinforce inequality. Getting into a good college isn’t enough: if you can’t afford that internship, then you can’t compete for the best jobs against your better-off classmates after graduation.
When I started looking for internships, my priority was finding a part-time, paid position that would give me the experience I needed while still allowing me to keep my job as a barista and pay my bills.
Eventually, I found my current (paid) position as business strategy and communications intern here at PR & Company, but few students are as lucky as I am. For those who can’t afford to work for free, the typical alternative to an unpaid internship is a paying job, which might lack networking and advancement opportunities – making it much harder to climb the professional ladder.
The conversation around internships is finally starting to change. Ford Foundation CEO Darren Walker’s recent New York Times OpEd describes how he seeks to fill the Foundation’s paid internships with applicants who receive financial aid for school, and he urges other organizations to do the same. He stresses that we need to change the internship model to work for all students, regardless of socioeconomic status.
I’m thrilled to see leaders in the field decrying the inequalities inherent in unpaid positions but I’d also like prospective employers to stop treating internships as the only path to professional success. Why not consider an applicant’s entire employment history? Have they successfully juggled schoolwork with an outside job, taken on leadership roles, and advanced in their workplace? Successfully managing a cafe can be far more enriching than that coveted internship.
Creating new expectations and valuing a range of talents and experiences will help recent college graduates and it will promote diversity. Organizations would only benefit from a new generation of leaders whose backgrounds represent our country’s full range of talent and ability.