The internship treadmill

Like other 20-somethings seeking a career foothold, Andrew Lang, a graduate of Penn State, took an internship at an upstart Beverly Hills production company at age 29 as a way of breaking into movie production. It didn’t pay, but he hoped the exposure would open doors.

“When that internship proved to be a dead end, Mr. Lang went to work at a


 second production company, again as an unpaid intern, reports the New York Times “When that went nowhere, he left for another, doing whatever was asked, like delivering bottles of wine to 27 offices before Christmas. But that company, too, could not afford to hire him, even part time.

“A year later, Mr. Lang is on his fourth internship, this time for a company that produces reality TV shows. While this internship at least pays him (he makes $10 an hour, with few perks), Mr. Lang feels no closer to a real job and worries about being an intern forever. “No one hires interns,” said Mr. Lang, who sees himself as part of a “revolving class of people” who can’t break free of the intern cycle. “Is this any way to live?”

“The intern glass ceiling isn’t limited to Hollywood. Tenneh Ogbemudia, 23, who aspires to be a record executive, has had four internships at various New York media companies, including Source magazine and Universal Music Group.

“In any given month, I’d say I apply to at least 300 full-time jobs,” she said, noting these attempts were to no avail. “On the other hand, I can apply to one or two internship positions a month and get a call back from both.”Call them members of the permanent intern underclass: educated members of the millennial generation who are locked out of the traditional career ladder and are having to settle for two, three and sometimes more internships after graduating college, all with no end in sight. Like an army of worker ants, they are a subculture with a distinct identity, banding together in Occupy Wall Street-inspired groups and, lately, creating their own blogs, YouTube channels, networking groups and even a magazine that captures life inside the so-called Intern Nation. It is a young, rudderless community that is still trying to define itself. “I’m just wondering at what point how many internships is too many,” said Lea, who received a master’s degree from Parsons, the New School for Design two years ago and aspires to work as a magazine art director. (She was allowed to use only her first name to avoid jeopardizing a current job application.) So far, her résumé has been limited to three internships — planning events for teenagers at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, compiling news clippings for a public relations agency in New York, and being the “fetch-the-coffee girl” at an art gallery.While feeling trapped inside what she calls a “never-ending intern life,” Lea satisfies her creative impulses by editing a food and drinks column at a lifestyle blog, selling coral fan necklaces on Etsy, and starting a charity to teach children about “responsible” street art. She wonders if she should surrender to a fourth internship or settle for an office job outside her chosen field.

“I’m 26 right now,” she said. “I know that everyone has their own pace, but I don’t really feel like a real adult right now.”There was a time not long ago when internships were reserved for college students. But that era is passing, with loosely defined internships — some paying a small stipend, some nothing — replacing traditional entry-level jobs for many fresh out of college.The moribund economy is, without question, a primary factor behind the shift. Even though the employment picture has brightened since the depths of the Great Recession, few would describe it as sunny. The general unemployment rate inched down to 6.6 percent last month, but the jobless rate for college graduates age 20 to 24 stood at 8 percent in 2013, compared with 5.1 percent in 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.No one tracks how many college graduates take internships, but employment experts and intern advocates say the number has risen substantially in recent years. “The postgraduate internship has exploded,” said Ross Perlin, author of the book “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.” “This was something that became a real mainstream experience after the recession began.”But the poor job market is not the only reason that recent graduates feel stuck in internships. Millennials, it is often said, want more than just a paycheck; they crave meaningful and fulfilling careers, maybe even a chance to change the world. That may explain why millennials like Breanne Thomas, 24, an aspiring entrepreneur in Brooklyn, has bounced from internship to internship. Unlike her parents’ generation, it is not enough to find a steady job; she wants to follow the path of Mark Zuckerberg, or at least to get in on the ground floor of the next Facebook, the next Twitter.

“ ‘Success’ doesn’t always mean financial success, but doing something you’re passionate about,” said Ms. Thomas, who graduated with two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Oregon in 2012. “It’s kind of my goal one day to have my own company, to be part of something that is going to do something great. That’s why I’m in tech.”

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