Like getting caught in an unexpected roundabout, looking for a job as a new graduate is a vicious cycle. Even entry level jobs ask for not just experience, but experience in your particular field. How are you supposed to get said experience if no one is willing to hire? Oh, right. Internships.
With a depressed labour market in Europe, and some countries in outright nightmarish situations (sorry Spain), young workers are competing for paid and unpaid internships alike. Sure, as a student looking to build your CV, unpaid internships can be rationalized as they are done in tandem with your studies and teach you "self-discipline, showing up on time, dressing and comporting oneself properly." But unless you are well enough off to support yourself with no income, taking on an unpaid internship once you've graduated makes no sense whatsoever.
In a city like Brussels even paid internships range from a monthly stipend of 700-1200 euros on average and competition is downright cutthroat. Many of these coveted internships aren't just fetching coffees and trying to figure out how to fax internationally, but are real work and come with real (read: long) working hours. Though there is no European minimum wage, and policies are far from consistent across the EU, examples of some monthly minimum wages are:
Estonia 320 euro
Greece 683 euro
UK 1,264 euro
France 1,430 euro
Belgium 1,472 euro
While companies have clearly figured out that they can get the same work they would have otherwise paid real wages done by young, bright, ambitious "interns" for a handful of euros per hour, the real question is, why haven't we figured it out yet?
In the end it's 99% desperation and 1% expectation. For many, there are no evident alternatives. If we don't take these opportunities as they come along there's someone right behind us ready and willing to gobble up the gruel being handed out with a smile on their face. The second motivation is that maybe, just maybe, these internships will lead to some sort of stable opportunity. However, that illusion is shattered by the fact that many of these internships are specified from the on-set that they are for fixed periods, future employment is not guaranteed, or that employment within the organization thereafter is outright out of the question.
This leads to yet another question: are we selling ourselves short? Are we perpetuating these types of positions, helping to depress real job growth and delaying our own careers and those of our peers? If so, what's the alternative?
Sure, we can take a moral stand to the man and say no, we're going to hold out for real prospects that are secure and worthy of our talents and capabilities. But that would undoubtedly elicit a reaction similar to saying you believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Until the economy picks up (bringing with it more bargaining power to young workers) such protest will reap little reward.
Government intervention is tricky, as policy can't be guided at the European level. Certain policies have though attempted to address this problem. For example, the region of Tuscany is incentivizing employers to hire interns by offering businesses 4,000 euro for every hire between the ages of 18 and 30 and 5,000 euro for those considered disadvantaged. This policy directly targets dead-end internships, nudging employers to actually pull the hiring trigger, but is difficult to tout as a one-size-fits all solution as not every country or region can fund such programs (again, sorry Spain).
But perhaps there is a silver lining that we're not quite glimpsing yet. Youths with untapped potential and limited outlets to release their frustration and energy could say to hell with the system and make their own opportunities. Rather than working for an organization they can work together to make their own. Admittedly this is easier said than done in a time when financing and potential customers are hard to come by. But then again, creativity is often born out of necessity. Even in times of economic prosperity risk is one of the biggest factors that deters people from branching out and starting their own enterprise. The final question I'd ask is how big is the risk really when you've got nothing else to lose?