by by Ava Lubell

illustration by by Liana Ogden

President Obama and Congress have granted federal dollars and ample attention to the plight of those struggling to pay for college. Unfortunately, the titans of public policy seem largely to have overlooked the worries of recent or, like me, soon-to-be college graduates. Even in the most prosperous times, college seniors must wrestle with knowing that they will leave the cocoon regardless of the strength of their wings. But now, with the economy in a downward spiral, college seniors have additional reasons to be nervous and no one to blame for their woes.

As US unemployment numbers climb, possibly heading toward double digits (a milestone Rhode Island reached several months ago), the question of entry-level employment acquires new importance. What happens to the ambitious college graduate eager to enter the workforce but unable to land a paying job? When I enrolled in college almost four years ago, I could not predict my future response to the inevitable question: "What are you going to do after you graduate?" But I surely didn't expect I would be keeping my fingers crossed not for the job--but the internship--of my dreams.
I'm currently on the hunt, so to speak. And when paid options began to look increasingly scarce a few months ago, I started applying to numerous internships in my field of choice: political journalism (not exactly a booming industry these days). If I do land an internship--hardly a foregone conclusion--it will not be my first (or second) time performing unpaid political work. I always promised myself I wouldn't become one of those entitled adolescents who couldn't understand why the Senator didn't ask them to draft press releases. My assignments weren't always glamorous. I stuffed envelopes and made coffee--hardly the stuff of Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing. I learned a lot by watching other people, and I've never regretted choosing to intern.
I know from personal experience that unpaid internships do, in fact, offer benefits (no, not that kind). College students gain experience without facing the burden of responsibility. They needn't worry about the company's performance on the Dow or what their Christmas bonus will be. They learn the daily grind of office life--who does what, how voicemail works, what not to wear. Some office internships afford the opportunity for more substantive work, too--some interns do pen press releases.
In his inaugural address, President Obama lauded "the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job." How would this former Professor counsel a college senior? It's not hard to understand why someone with the energy of youth and in possession of a not-yet-framed college-degree might offer his or her talents free of charge. One can hardly fault students for their work ethic and ambition. And as long as internships provide experience, professional contacts, and the possibility of future employment (in a more bullish economy), college graduates will continue to seek them.
The President has a lot on his plate right now, but perhaps he or someone on his staff could create a taskforce responsible for outlining internship regulations. Interns are not volunteers. They are certainly not full-scale employees. They occupy a murky middle ground. Many internship programs only accept those students currently enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate program, but plenty of companies and institutions offer internships on a more ad hoc basis. The Obama administration should develop a set of guidelines to ensure that the post-graduate internship benefits participants without harming other employees. Regulations should require companies to announce how large their internship programs are, what purpose they serve and who is eligible to participate because the post-graduate internship creates problems that cannot be ignored.
Recently, a friend astutely asked: "Wouldn't you feel uncomfortable working for free at a company that will probably fire people?" She had a point. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that as of December "The job openings rate in December was the lowest point so far in the 8-year-old series." In February, more than 650,000 Americans lost their jobs. 8.1 percent of people looking for a job cannot find one. But while companies may be laying off full and even part-time workers, unpaid interns have a weird brand of staying power. They do not take money out of company coffers, so offices have every incentive to let interns continue working past the typical expiration date of a few months.
Even if an intern works on the simplest projects or does nothing more than answer phones, he or she could still be facilitating the delivery of another pink slip and worsening the state of the economy. Of course, a new hire's contributions can hardly supplant the work of a seasoned veteran. And in the midst of such dire economic forecasts, colleagues may be too worried about their mortgage payments, their 401(k) plans, and their kids' college tuition to resent some ambitious 22-year-old.
But who are these young 20-somethings who can afford to work 20, 40 or 60 hours a week without compensation? Internships have always had an unfortunate class dimension to them. The major urban centers in which internships are most concentrated have a high cost of living. Even the gainfully employed struggle to afford life in New York or San Francisco or Washington DC.
As the price of a college education continues to rise, many students at even the most elite schools receive some kind of financial aid package. Millions of students take out college loans. It's hard to see, though, how most who come straight out of college could afford to support themselves for any prolonged period of time, while they devote their days to the office. A solidly middle-class student with outstanding loans can hardly afford to work for free.
Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that some bourgeois parents are actually paying companies so that their children can intern. Slate Magazine's Timothy Noah notes a three-year-old Wall Street Journal discovery that internships generated thousands of dollars for independent schools auctioning them at fundraisers. In 2009, the Journal and Slate both reported that some parents who buy internships are not among the most affluent. And it turns out that parents might have paid in vain. Upon graduating college, their child still must compete against wealthier peers who can continue to defer compensation.
Even if a college graduate moves home to save money while looking for work, someone must pay for basic necessities. If the baby boom generation that raised many of today's college seniors must continue to support their children, they will likely have to spend even more conservatively than they are right now (and risk prolonging the recession).
Of course, as baby boomers stay at work longer, fewer mid-level employees will be promoted, and fewer entry-level jobs will open. Years ago, it was de rigueur to challenge the baby boom generation for staying at work too long, charging that they disrupted the natural employment cycle. The cost of their health benefits was draining companies and parents were inadvertently delaying their children's entry into the economy. As my generation watches the hardships our parents face, such criticism seems shortsighted.
Maybe my peers and I could honor the call of boomer hero JFK--we could ask what we can do for our country. Levels of youth participation in the most recent election suggest that public service's appeal has grown among the under-30 set. We cheered. We campaigned. We rocked the vote. And now the government we elected is working to provide jobs and build new employment sectors with stimulus bills and bailouts. But even government and volunteer jobs are hard to come by. The Obama Administration has been flooded by hundreds of thousands of resumes. Volunteer programs like Teach for America are highly selective in whom they accept and often funded by endowments that are also suffering from the downturn.
There are no statistics indicating how many college seniors will leave school with sound employment prospects. We are hardly the only ones struggling right now. But that does not mean we don't merit some attention. I hope the nation does not forget that while the old are devastated, the young are discouraged and in need of some advice and understanding.
We all have a few months more to hunt for jobs before we settle for internships. There's no obvious solution to the problems the internship presents. They promote good (education and experience), but leave open the possibility for ill (exacerbated economic inequality and layoffs). President Obama's recently released budget brewed much controversy for its ambition. At the risk of adding to our nation's budget deficit, I suggest the government look into a topic that might bring on some unfortunate memories for the last Democratic Presidential Administration: what role should interns play, how must their activity be regulated and to what guidelines must those offering internships adhere.

AVA LUBELL B'09 asks what the economy can do for the class of '09.