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This is how the intern economy is shaping the future of work

This week, Fast Company takes a critical look at the modern internship: What’s working, what’s broken, and how you can get the most out of your experience—whether you’re an intern or a manager.

This is how the intern economy is shaping the future of work
[Images: Library of Congressf/Wikimedia Commons; Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-G0925-0036-001/ Stöhr/CC-BY-SA 3.0; monkeybusinessimages/iStock]

This story is part of Fast Company‘s editorial package “The Intern Economy.” In the spirit of back to school and new opportunities to learn beyond the classroom, we’ve collected the personal stories of interns and managers to reveal what this step on the first rung of the career ladder means for the future of work. Click here to read all the stories in the series.

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It’s the eternal Catch-22 of the working world: You can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job.

While babysitting, waiting tables, and other part-time jobs have long been the purview of teens looking to pocket some money while waiting to land a “real job,” the skills gained in such positions don’t always equip you for an entry-level gig in a specific profession. This is where internships come in.

These temporary roles are offered by companies looking to round out their workforce with junior members who are as-yet-unproven professionals. The company gets the benefit of a cheap worker who is eager to learn, and the intern gets the chance to build their network and résumé—at least in theory.

We know the reality is different. While internships are seen at once as a rite of passage, a cartoonish trope (think: the 2013 film based on Google’s internship program), or an outright nightmare (see: any listicle detailing intern horror stories), they do make an impact on the present and future of our labor force. And this is what we aim to explore in our new series launching today: The Intern Economy.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) estimates that there are as many as 300,000 students participating in some form of preemployment apprenticeship in the U.S. each year.

Despite the sheer size of that pool, and the fact that employers are scrambling to find talent as unemployment stays low, there are no guarantees that an internship will turn into a job at that company—or anywhere else. The NACE’s report reveals that a little over half (56.1%) of internships convert to full-time jobs.

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As employers continue to treat interns like temps, they’re more likely to exploit these aspiring professionals. According to NACE’s data, about 43% of internships were unpaid in 2018, despite the raft of class-action lawsuits that were leveled at companies such as Condé Nast, Fox Searchlight, Hearst, and others between 2011 and 2013. Although this prompted the U.S. Department of Labor to change its requirements for classifying interns versus employees, the criteria serve mostly to protect the employer.

Organizations in a variety of industries that take on this free labor are often able to get away with making interns do grunt work that goes well beyond fetching lattes—and pushes well beyond the definition of skill-building. As Fast Company‘s assistant editor Anisa Purbasari Horton reports, interns have had to scrub floors, ensure a sex worker hired by a client remained unseen by the client’s wife, and put in 16-hour days without pay. Although author Ross Perlin suggests students simply opt-out of the entire internship race in his book, The Intern Nation, former interns told Purbasari Horton that their experiences—no matter how awful—had value.

That’s what Fast Company senior staff writer Liz Segran contends. In a personal essay, she reveals how after earning a PhD and three years of fruitless searching for a professorship, she took an internship at age 30. The move, although humbling, served to open the door to a new career as a journalist, and she’s flourished ever since.

Segran’s story isn’t a common one. Not everyone can take on low-wage or nonpaying employment in the hopes that it will turn into a full-time, paid gig. And the fact that nearly half of all internships remain unpaid sets the stage for a lifetime earnings gap. As Fast Company assistant editor Pavithra Mohan explores in her thought-provoking report, income inequality begins when a student facing down an average of $30,000 in loans is forced to choose between making a career choice based on passion and one that pays enough to keep a roof over their head and food. Mohan details how unpaid internships hurt all workers—even those with privilege—because they result in workplaces that are less diverse and where workers earn lower wages overall.

This, unfortunately, is not a new conundrum. A previous report in Fast Company traces the origins and evolution of unpaid internships, apprenticeships, and co-ops. From ancient Egypt, Rome, and Asia to the craft guilds of the Middle Ages when wealthy merchants could pay to send their children to work with highly sought after masters, through the Industrial Revolution and the modern practice of medical residencies, interns have borne the yoke of “paying their dues” while not getting paid.

It’s not all bleak though. As Fast Company‘s own summer intern (yes, she was paid) Claire Miller reports, internships are evolving at some companies to create a more equitable proving ground for young people and their potential employers.

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We’ve also tapped the experiences of expert contributors like Cara Brennan Allamano, senior vice president of HR at Udemy, to discuss how the rise of perks like free beer and casual workplaces have blurred boundaries to the point where interns aren’t learning basic professionalism on the job. We have a thoughtful letter filled with advice from Mary Rinaldi to interns who may be facing harassment by virtue of being the least powerful person in the office. For those who want to know how to leverage their internship to get a job, we’ve culled the wisdom of the Intern Queen Lauren Berger, who’s built a business working with this growing cohort.

Ultimately, we hope The Intern Economy sparks some much-needed food for thought, no matter what your role or industry. Hiring managers and CEOs, administrators at colleges and universities, legislators, students, adults making a career transition—anyone and everyone is potentially affected by this segment of the workforce. What we do now can ensure that internships don’t perpetuate nightmare scenarios and income inequality but rather create fertile ground that supports the future of work.

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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