The “summer job” vs. the “fancy internship” (revisited)

Some four years ago, I mused on the nature of traditional, entry-level summer jobs versus fancy internships for undergraduates:

Say you’re a young college student, weighing your options for the summer. Assuming you have some choice in the matter, what’s better preparation for a successful career, a summer internship with a prominent business or non-profit group, or a summer job filling shelves and running a cash register for a local supermarket?

Although I readily admitted that the internship is most likely the better option in terms of credentialing and experience, I waxed nostalgic about past summer jobs when I was a college student, in the days before internships became so common. For those who find themselves “stuck” in a low-paying summer job rather than a career enhancing internship, I’d like to expound upon some of the hidden advantages of the minimum wage gig compared to interning for that Master of the Universe on Wall Street or Senator so-and-so on The Hill:

1. It’s about work: You’re paid for your work, maybe not a lot, but it’s “x” amount of money for “x” number of hours of work, and that’s it. There’s no B.S. about “getting experience,” “networking,” and “building contacts” — lines especially favored by those touting unpaid internships.

2. More diversity: You’re likely to work with a more socio-economically diverse group of people, with varied backgrounds, ages, and life stories. You’ll see good people working hard, even if the job isn’t their life dream or doesn’t pay all that great.

3. Work ethic: You’re reminded that no one regards you as a future World Conqueror in Training. If you do quality work, you’ll probably be treated okay. If you don’t, you’ll likely hear about it. You’ll learn that a work ethic is generated largely from within. You’ll also come to savor a nice word for doing an extra thorough job on a task that required more determination than analytical know-how.

4. Keeping it real: While a positive disposition is always helpful in any job or internship, in an ordinary summer job you don’t have to fake it quite as much and project a false sense of gee-whiz enthusiasm for a mundane project. Your boss knows that putting 20 cartons of products on the store shelves isn’t an exciting assignment, and all she asks is that you do the job competently and with a relatively good attitude.

5. Appreciating contributions: Whether it’s unpacking boxes, cleaning tables, taking customer orders, running errands for the boss, sweeping the floors, or some other seemingly unglamorous duty, you’ll learn how these tasks contribute to a successful company. And if you ever become the CEO of a company like that, then maybe you’ll appreciate those contributions in setting or negotiating the pay and benefit scales for your employees.

Reality checks

Okay, as I conceded four years ago, I realize the game has changed a lot since my collegiate days. These days, a student who opts for a summer gig waiting on tables or lifting boxes, over an internship that looks good on a resume and potentially opens a door, might actually be called foolish. Furthermore, the pressures and realities for college students have intensified:

1. Not either/or: Because of the costs of college and the perceived need to build credentials, way too many undergraduates are doing both the summer job and the unpaid internship. This is especially the case for those who don’t have funding from family or other sources to cover their living expenses. For those who, in essence, are pulling ongoing double shifts, this also creates the risk that they won’t be as sharp in either position.

2. Shorter supply: Even the old-fashioned, minimum wage-type summer jobs are in shorter supply. Many of these positions have been taken by adults of all ages who cannot find better paying work elsewhere. The sharp decline of the U.S. manufacturing sector, in particular, has contributed to a huge shortage of jobs that pay living wages and decent benefits. Also, more than a few “summer jobs” have been relabeled unpaid “internships” in an effort to escape expectations of compensation. (Long-time readers know that I have been very involved in supporting legal challenges to the widespread practice of unpaid internships, but this practice remains very common.)

3. A lot less fancy: Building on my point above, the intern economy has become an exploitative extension of the training and credentialing period necessary to qualify for full-time employment in a given occupation. When I was in college, securing an internship as an undergraduate was seen as a plum achievement, worthy of envy — “Hey, I got this incredible internship where I’m going to meet all these heavy hitters and gain tons of experience!!!” Today, however, the intern world has devolved into an ongoing procession of unpaid and low-paid “opportunities,” with few assurances of a post-graduate paying gig at the end.

I guess the upshot of all this is that it’s hard to reverse course. The intern economy is now baked into the superstructure of training and credentialing for many professions, and that’s unlikely to transform anytime soon. The entry-level summer job market for students has shriveled, especially during these post-meltdown years.

Thirty-five summers ago, had someone told me that my summer job unloading trucks and doing other retail tasks for a local drugstore chain would actually teach me more valuable lessons than an elusive internship secured by someone at a tonier college, I would’ve scoffed at them dismissively. Today, however, I’m grateful for that experience, especially in light of how things have changed.

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