The Intern Returns

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If you like to work hard and to not get paid, I have a name for you — intern.

In the midst of a jobless recovery, the jobs that everyone is talking about are the jobs that don’t include a paycheck. Yet, every day, in every way, people are fighting to get the opportunity to work for nothing.


If you ask Alexandra Levit, the Reinvent columnist for The Wall Street Journal, the urge to intern represents a group of strivers “who are riding out the recession by learning new fields and building their career portfolios — and paying the rent with side jobs, savings or a parental infusion of cash.”

Exactly how an unpaid job builds your career portfolio is not exactly clear to me, unless your career goal is to work your way up the ladder of unpaid positions until you finally achieve a massive, high-pressure gig with enormous responsibility, constant pressure and absolutely no salary at all.   That would be the top, or is it the bottom?

Of course, if you ask an intern why she or he is working for free, you’re likely to get an answer that revolves around non-monetary rewards, like gaining experience, or building relationships that will someday pay off.

Consider Emily Shankman, a recent college graduate whose post-graduate lack of career is chronicled in the Journal. With a newly minted degree in vocal performance. Ms. Shankman graduated into a world where her fellow classmates “weren’t able to get the jobs we dreamed of and studied so hard for.”

Whether she took the logical step and used her classic vocal training to audition for American Idol, I don’t know. I do know she is currently experiencing an unpaid internship at the Chicago Light Opera where she “spends her days archiving materials, advertising auditions and helping with fund raising.”

I’m hoping that doing the heavy lifting at the light opera will get Shankman where she wants to be. Perhaps she’ll be discovered scatting in the opera company’s basement archives by a visiting opera impresario. Perhaps she will bump into Ryan Seacrest at a matinee performance of The Pirates of Penzance, and the next thing we know, all America will be watching her vocal talents being lacerated by Simon Cowell.

For all the uncertainty faced by unpaid interns, at least Shankman will be rubbing elbows with people who could actually hire her. This is not the case with the unpaid virtual intern.

Playing on its morbid fascination with providing corporate America with a free workforce, The Wall Street Journal also served up a Getting Ahead column by Jonnelle Marte in which we learn that, if you’re very lucky, you can get an unpaid position in which you can work without going to work.

In “An Internship From Your Couch,” Marte reports on the hot new trend of “virtual internships,” which “can allow perspective employees to more easily sample a wider variety of jobs, without having to relocate.”

One advantage of a virtual internship, outside of the opportunity of working for free in your Free Willy pajamas, is that you can do your virtual interning at your non-paying real internship. In short, you could have several free internships going, all at the same time, making it possible for you to gain scads of experience and go broke, simultaneously. Ain’t technology wonderful?

Not surprisingly, most of the virtual internships are targeted at the kind of people who can keep their virtual employers up to speed on the social media sites deemed so important these days for anti-social companies. The idea of making Exxon look good on Facebook and not taking a penny from the company’s multi-billion annual profits demonstrates a truly unselfish nature.  And it’s not only giant corporate monoliths that are using virtual interns! According to the Journal, author Lisa Orrell “has hired four virtual interns in the past two years to help maintain her MySpace and Facebook pages and to promote her book, ‘Millennials Incorporated,’ which advises companies on managing younger workers.”

I haven’t read Orrell’s book, but I imagine the advice she offers includes a strategy for hiring the best qualified, best educated employees by promising not to pay them a salary.  It makes sense to me. If you’re getting paid, you probably feel like you’re not getting paid enough, but when you work an intern, whether it’s for peanuts, for credit, or just for experience, you can’t complain. You know you’re getting paid exactly what your employer thinks you’re worth


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