I tackle all these questions in this post.
Back in university…
As a university student, I never quite questioned the fact that my first steps into the labor market had to be in the form of an internship. It seemed natural especially since my field of studies is known to suffer from a high demand and a meagre offer. Even during the career events at our university, it was clear that two main possible paths were open: that of those interested in a career in marketing, finance or banking could start with a paid internship or would be offered more jobs compared to “us”, the human rights/international development crowd.
That is not to say that those who ended up specializing in international economics were totally exempted from the world of unpaid internships. But numbers were pretty clear at that time.
The necessity to go through unpaid or barely paid internships seemed so natural that I personally could not find anything against it myself. The main reason being that many NGOs and international organizations would not have been able to pay for their staff anyways. This is still very much true, at least it is for many NGOs. An interesting note on this subject comes from a German union representative I interviewed some time ago who pointed out to the fact that in the case of such organizations “often confuse internship and volunteering”.
As an intern..
There seems to be less of an agreement as to how regulate students’ internships – especially the ones that are compulsory in order to complete a degree – but, as far as unpaid post-grad internships go, many are of the opinion that they represent an insult.
I listened to my parents arguing that someone with a degree should be able to receive at least a basic financial gratification. From a personal point of view, I often felt ashamed of finding myself in this situation: if, on the one hand, I kept on telling myself that all I was doing – for free – was entirely necessary and normal, I simply could not get over the fact of having to continuously depend my parents to manage to pay my rent.
In my most recent internship experience I found out that my skills and previous highly valuable experience were simply not important. Compared to the interview where I was told of some actually interesting tasks, in the end I found myself merely answering the phone, forwarding emails, sorting through the mail, occasionally taking a tour to the post office to send letters. Occasionally I would also sort reviews and books for the little library. Is this really acceptable?
I realized I needed to seriously think about this. I had often felt like during my internships I wasn’t performing tasks significantly different from those performed by other normal “employees”. Only, there wasn’t any money to pay me and, even though everyone was very happy about my work, I was going to be replaced by another intern. I probably should have forced myself to do this kind of thinking beforehand, but at least now I have some experience allowing me to draw some conclusions. I also know I am not the only one with this dilemma. I have read a great amount of stories of graduates that, after the 3rd or 4th internship, are still not offered anything but another internship.
Let’s ask questions
It is not only the absence of a pay, of health insurance, of other social benefits, that should make us think, rather the way we submit ourselves to a system of employment that does not treat us like real adults and makes competitiveness a game to be played at the lowest levels, for the sake of professional survival.
Why should a graduate accept to work for free even when her/his qualifications are sufficient to make her/him benefit from the same treatment as any other employee?
I realized I was maybe too submissive during my internships whereas other people around me – or even colleagues – pointed out to the “scandalous situations of graduates who are not paid, even more scandalous when it is an organization that lobbies for equality and human rights”.
Be it as it might, it’s not because something is common and accepted as normal that one should not question it. Quite the contrary.
So, ok, internships are a growing trend, for some a better experience than for others, but when one looks at the macro, at the principle, there are a couple of questions we should ask ourselves.
And this is the aim of my project: giving a representation to a phenomenon, although very complex and full of contradictions, and giving a chance to interns to say what they think.
Spread the word
See the exhibition
March 5th to 26th, ACUD Galerie, Veteranenstraße 21 (see ACUD press release). Tuesday to Sunday, 2 to 8 pm.
The exhibition in Berlin is over – thanks to everybody for coming!
April, University of Hamburg – more details soon!
May 10th to 31st, Archeologiattiva, via Duomo 228, Napoli.
Mondays to Saturdays, from 10 am to 20 pm.
Vernissage on the 10th of May with readings on the topic of internships by Raffaella R. Ferré, author of “Santa Precaria”.
Geneva: Go to exhibition’s archive
June 12th to 18th, University of Geneva, Uni Mail Bd du Pont-d’Arve 40, 1205 Genève; Horaires: lundi au vendredi : 7h30 – 23h; samedi : 7h30 – 17h30; dimanche : fermé. The exhibition is over! Thank you all for coming.