Posted by : Christina Craver Wednesday, May 1, 2013

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?

{ 2 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. I think even internships are something of a damp squib, since most jobs advertised on places like, say, EuroBrussels, ask not just for some experience, but for one year minimum. Very few people have the patience or the money to sweat out one whole year unpaid work and what's more it's incredibly demeaning to work your balls off at university only to come out of it with high marks and then compete with all the other Bright Young Things around Europe for unpaid labour.

    What's more, there's something of a class hierarchy even within the graduates competing for unpaid internships. I've done two separate internships amounting to three months total at some pretty prestigious intergovernmental organisations (I won't say which, but let's just say you've heard of them) and I know full well that this only makes me somewhat more competitive that a person with no experience because there will be many people applying for the positions I apply for that have, say, six months unpaid work experience. Who can afford to work for six months unpaid in a foreign country?

  2. Very good points Alex. The question we should ask ourselves, and be asking of employers is at what point do they stop saying "Yes, we want the candidate for this internship who's done 4 unpaid internships at XYZ EU or international institutions" and say "Yes, we want to HIRE this candidate who's done 4 unpaid internships at XYZ EU or international institutions". Employers are capitalizing on our youthful optimism and taking advantage of an educated labour force. The problem is when that optimism turns to worry then to panic.

    (PS like your use of Bright Young Things. Reminiscent of Michael Jackson's PYT...may be ripping that phrase from you in the future!)


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