Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a public policy organization in Manhattan.
How do you get a job without experience? And how do you get experience without a job? For today's young workers, the answer is get an internship. More than half of this year's college graduates did just that at some point before earning their degrees, according to a survey just released by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
Internships are nothing new. But as the employment picture for recent college graduates has grown more bleak, the number of young workers feeling the pressure to do internships has increased. More students getting early professional experience sounds like a great thing, but it also has its pitfalls.
About 90 percent of members of the college classes of 2006 and 2007 found employment within a year of graduating, according to a survey conducted this spring by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. For the class of 2010, that figure dropped to just 56 percent. The jobs that are available for recent grads also pay about 10 percent less than those won by the class of 2006.
In this dismal climate, the class of 2011 and those following them have the feeling that, for future hirability, there's no option but to do a pre-graduation internship.
Marianna Savoca, director of the Career Center at Stony Brook University, says, "Employers have the luxury of setting high expectations for their newly graduated hires." In fact, she says, "Students in pre-professional academic programs like journalism, engineering, and business, know they need an internship to be competitive."
But even as they are becoming a de facto requirement, not all internships are created equal. About half are unpaid. That means options are limited for students whose parents aren't able to foot the bill while they work for free -- and already established economic disparities are exacerbated.
Dolores Ciaccio, director of the Career Development Center at Farmingdale State College, told me about the gap she sees between students who can afford to intern without pay and those who cannot: "Most of our students have part-time jobs to support their expenses, and if they were to take an unpaid internship in lieu of the job it would leave them in a negative situation financially. So this creates somewhat of a conflict."
Students who are worse off economically either have to make sure they find increasingly rare paid internships, or they're forced to work a side job while interning. When done right, internships are an excellent learning experience -- but learning happens best when you have time to process, reflect on and draw lessons from the experience. Students who are struggling at a second or third job have less opportunity to do that.
When it comes to getting a job after graduation, an unpaid internship is better than none -- though not much. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers survey, only 33 percent of students who failed to do any type of internship had a job offer at time of graduation. In comparison, 38 percent of those who completed an unpaid internship were employed. But those with paid internships under their belt blew these other groups away. Of this group, 61 percent had a job offer by graduation day.
The take-away for college students seems to be: Shoot for a paid internship, but get any one you can and make it work out. Heather Huhman, a career consultant and author of "Lies, Damned Lies, and Internships," says that "Every internship teaches you something . . . even bad ones."
Maybe you'll learn that your chosen field isn't really for you. Maybe you'll understand what it's like to work for a bad boss. Maybe you'll walk away with valuable contacts or a new appreciation for earning a salary. Maybe you'll do nothing more than acquire a line that every employer expects to see on your resume.
Whatever the circumstances, the bottom line remains the same: Embrace the internship, young workers. Because -- at least until the economy recovers -- it's here to stay.