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Interns Shouldn't Have to Pull a Sword From a Stone

April 30, 2012
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With all the talk about interns these days, it got me thinking about the origins of internships.

Of course, I knew a little about apprenticeships, which date back to Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries, and I've watched Donald Trump's The Apprentice, so I know being an apprentice can be lucrative—that is, if you're one of the few folks who wins a reality show. But for some reason, my mind always thinks about one character when I think apprentice: the "Wart" from Disney's The Sword and the Stone. Even though the film focuses on a much earlier time in history, I still imagine the scrawny "Wart" who would eventually pull the sword from the stone and then, presumably, go shopping at Really Big Tables R Us when he was crowned King Arthur.

So I did a little research and learned that in 1563 Britain established the Statute of Artificers, which regulated apprenticeships and established the length of training, which lasted two to seven years. Those controls were in place until the early 1800s. It's not too shocking that apprentices were unhappy about working seven years for minimum dough, which is not so different from today's interns who often find themselves in a similar boat, even though the paddling required to get to the Shores of Salary isn't quite that long. One key difference is that people who spent years as apprentices were on their way to careers in their chosen fields, while interns aren't necessarily guaranteed anything in terms of employment.

As a child of the '70s, I was surprised to learn that internships didn't begin popping up until the 1960s and didn't really catch on in the U.S. until the 1980s, according to a Forbes.com article from a few years ago. According to the story, universities began championing the cause as a way to get their students real-world experience, and companies, of course, enjoy the benefits of getting help without paying a full- or part-timer's salary and benefits. But not all companies give their interns the experience they seek.

When I graduated from college in 1995, I accepted an internship at a public relations company that promoted musicians. At the time, I wanted to be a rock writer whose stories appeared on the cover of a Rolling Stone, so it sounded like the best-case scenario for me. It was in my hometown of Chicago, and I'd get to work with bands and learn about the industry. It didn't concern me that the internship paid only a stipend of $400 a month for 40 hours a week, which comes to a whopping $2.50 per hour. Minimum wage at the time was $4.25. Needless to say, I lived at home. Thinking back on it now, it sort of reminds me of this Jack Benny-Mel Blanc skit where Benny reaches into his pocket and pulls out some change to tip Blanc who plays a telegram-delivery man. Benny delivers the classic line, "I thought I had smaller change than this." I'm guessing my employer pondered that thought as well when coming up with my stipend amount.

But I went into the internship with a huge smile on my face and big ambitions.

The first day went pretty well, although I was a little surprised to see that I and the two other interns shared a lunch-counterlike table in the back of the office. We didn't have our own computers or desks, and I think we shared a phone. Regardless, I was asked to listen to CDs of bands that were looking for sponsorship and to rate the ones I liked the best. I was getting paid to listen to music, and that was pretty cool. My mojo seemed to be working.

The next day didn't go as well. I learned a little more about what the job entailed: namely making photocopies. Lots and lots of copies. I also learned that Thursdays were my fax day. It was my responsibility to send out updated concert schedules to seemingly everyone in the phone book.

After a few weeks, I couldn't take it anymore. I wasn't making much money, and I wasn't learning anything, other than how to make copies and send faxes, so I told my manager I was quitting. She looked at me aghast as if I'd shoved her kid out of the way to get to the slide first. She then told me about the bad position I was putting her and her team in and how unprofessional I was. She guilt-tripped me into staying on two more weeks.

In those two weeks, I felt like a walking pariah, as few people even acknowledged me. After all, they all knew that my leaving was going to put the onus of faxing and copying on their shoulders. Now don't get me wrong, I take my commitments very seriously, but in this case I did not see any light at the end of the tunnel outside of the on button on the fax machine.

For the record, even though my experience was bad, I am very much in favor of internships. I think they serve a great purpose in helping young people learn about their chosen industry. But companies need to treat interns for what they are: workers. Workers who want to learn and make some money, that is. So don't thank them with thankless tasks. And that's something that hasn't changed in 1,000 years.

James Tehrani is Workforce Management's copy desk chief. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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