Icy (Unpaid) Internships

By September 12, 2011Creativity, Features, Ideas

Back in my youth, I was a precocious and ambitious achiever who parsed the NY Times and political blogs with the enthusiasm of a child scrutinizing the back of a Fruit Loops cereal box. Maybe it was genetics, maybe it was circumstance but probably it was my poor athletic skills and the futility of a career in ping-pong that motivated my interest in politics.

Fortunately, I fell into Cornell’s School of Industrial & Labor Relations (ILR) like an icicle falls into an Ithaca gorge after it outgrows its elevated perch. I was absorbed by a Career Services department that trumpeted “Resumaniacs Resume Critiques” and “Mock Interview Madness” before it even knew my name. They say ILR is a fiercely pre-professional labor school and while I didn’t sleep with my CV under my pillow while waiting for a Recruiter Fairy to deliver me a job, I was indoctrinated into this occupation-obsessed bubble.

So during summer 2009 I did what any spoiled, ambitious achiever would; I capitalized on the generous support of my family and plunged into the icy waters of unpaid internships. Armed with an inflated resume and naïveté, I pounced on job postings and began selling myself to political organizations in Washington D.C.

With the lascivious constituent outreach that has come to define dodgy politicos, I won’t make too many explicit metaphors linking my internships to prostitution. The metaphor doesn’t hold anyway because I was selling my services for free, far below escort market value.

Ultimately, I settled into the swanky offices of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE) housed in an abandoned nook of the World Wildlife Fund headquarters. For purposes of brevity and loyalty to the (now defunct) SAVE organization, let me explain just one section of my internship.

SAVE, a non-profit advocacy group, frequently lobbied legislators to support Gen Y economic health. By the end of the summer, I was leading hill action meetings where I would present gloomy data about youth employment and fiscal security. One of my main talking points was an impassioned critique of one of our country’s greatest acts of economic exploitation: the unpaid internship.

The irony dripped down my shoulders alongside the sweat from a swampy D.C. summer and anxiety-inducing Capitol Hill meetings.  I was an ambitious icicle swimming in a pre-professional gorge but suddenly I was melting. The system demanded proactive prostitution complete with cover letter and ironed collar but it reeked of inequity and exploitation. I reeked of privilege as I padded my resume with internships and my stomach with Pinkberry all on my parents’ dime. It was not good.

Now I sit in a job that is partly facilitated by my unpaid internships. I somehow prevented myself from melting long enough to send a polished resume and cover letter to the Governor of Illinois. I ironed the shirt and I spit out my mock interview honed answers. My brother’s an actor but it runs in our blood; I got the job.

So now I’m in a position of (slight) power and it’s time to sound the alarm from within. Unpaid internships and the terrifying thrills of “Mock Interview Madness” are not available to everyone. The new data shows the rich and poor sprinting in opposite directions. New icicles keep forming and falling into pre-professional waters. Meanwhile the unlucky icicles shatter onto neglected ground. It’s a self-propagating system that needs to be put to bed and the antidote must come from inside.

Oh and to finish my D.C. summer 2010 story, I figured if I was already sweating profusely in Capital City I might as well make a buck. I applied to be the McGruff the Crime Dog® mascot for the National Museum of Crime and Punishment. It was great and at least they gave me ice packs.

Editor’s note: While the Institute for Workplace Studies & Smithers Institute has interns, these interns are compensated with credit through ILR’s Credit Internship Program

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