As I continue the arduous mission of finding a job for my post-graduation life, I’m finding many potential employers expect something of me and my peers that I’m not willing to do: work for free.
Sure, unpaid internships are commonplace in college life. They offer worthwhile experience, for better or worse, and generally provide college credit, which does cost money and seems a fair enough payment. However, college graduates aren’t really in the market for college credit. What they need sometimes even more than experience is to be able to make a living.
While this problem plagues all college students, Columbia students are in a unique position. As this is an art school, most of the professions being promoted aren’t exactly moneymakers in the first place; an intern for a fine artist shouldn’t really expect to make an hourly wage if the artist isn’t bringing in a solid income.
When jobs are paid, they are nearly impossible for college students to be qualified for. No college senior I know has five years of professional experience in any field except maybe retail or food service. Too often companies offer only unpaid positions for those with any less experience under the guise that maybe a paid position will be waiting once the unpaid period is over—but it probably isn’t.
The problem is there are still no solid laws protecting post-graduates from these circumstances. As long as the employer can prove they are providing a “valuable learning experience”—which seems simple to prove, especially if they’re using the unpaid intern to do work that is typically paid—no monetary compensation is required. This lack of legislation has only promoted the unfortunate mantra of unpaid internships as the new entry-level job.
Once employers are finally giving recent college graduates jobs and are willing to pay them, they realize how desperate we are for money. I’ve been paid hourly up until this point; the promise of any salary at all seems appealing. What many college students don’t yet realize is that to stop slumming around like a college student, the salary needs to be above poverty level and should be appropriate to the level of work being done.
But like everything, there are sometimes exceptions. For example, if you can afford to take an unpaid internship with Conde Nast, the publishing company of magazines such as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, that’s an experience that could get you in with the likes of people writing for those publications. But even in this situation, putting in unpaid work is a slippery slope. If students start working for free now, they’re essentially saying that the work they’re doing isn’t worth anything. I’d be willing to say most people think their work is certainly worth something.
The search for a job will inevitably be a struggle, and at times it seems becoming a professional barista or simply marrying rich would be the best option. But there’s a lot to be said for being able to do what you love for the rest of your life and holding out until you can get paid to do it.