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YouTern CEO to Interns: Stop Being Doormats!

It's July, and in offices across the country career starters and students are halfway through their summer internships. Some are busy learning the essential skills that will launch their careers, but many others are fulfilling the role of coffee minion and photocopy drone, completing menial tasks for minimal or no pay in the belief that, with a sufficient amount of spin, the experience will improve their resumes.

Some commentators are scandalized by this increasingly common rite of passage. Here on Entry-Level Rebel one expert claimed Gen Y is "enslaved" by internships while another bemoaned the lack of learning at many programs. But not everyone involved in internships is exclusively outraged at companies that offer less than inspiring opportunities. When Entry-Level Rebel recently spoke to Mark Babbitt, CEO of internship placement site YouTern, he directed plenty of frustration at interns themselves.

YouTern vets internship opportunities and only posts those that involve real learning, but Babbitt insists prospective interns shouldn't rely on others to ensure they find good placements. "It's amazing to us how many people thoroughly research a job offer before taking it but they don't for an internship offer. I think interns have to realize this is the beginning of their career, not just an internship," Babbitt said.

Why are young people so reluctant to do their due diligence on the opportunities they're considering? Babbitt listed a number of reasons, including the economy, lack of experience, misrepresentations of opportunities by companies and parental pressure, but concluded that at the end of the day, the major factor is a failure of interns to assert themselves. And not just at the start of the process when choosing an internship. If an internship isn't living up to its billing halfway through, according to Babbitt, interns needs to actively manage the situation:

There's a bunch an intern can do. If an intern in all sincerity walks into their manager or mentor and says, 'Look, here's what we agreed on when I accepted the internship and here's what's really happening. I'd like to discuss with you the delta in between those two and see if we can bring it back closer to both of our expectations,' then that's a gamer changer. First of all, it positions you as an employee who is trying to change things for the better and not just complaining on Facebook or Twitter. The employer sees you as somebody who can actually deal with a problem rather than run away from it, and it looks great on your resume. You can say during your interview or on your cover letter, 'Here's an example of how I actively changed a bad situation into a good one and look at the great results from my efforts.'
The same principle goes for the issue of pay, Babbitt said. Sure, YouTern refuses to list unpaid internships at companies where the CEO is pulling in seven figures (and Babbitt had some harsh words for industries like fashion that are highly profitable and won't pay interns a penny), but again he called on interns to advocate for themselves.
Other than the Fair Standards Labor Act there is no law that protects interns, and that's the problem. Until somebody decides that interns have their own employment category then this is self-regulated. And when I say self-regulated, I mean by the employer and interns themselves. Let's say you're at an advertising agency and you're producing billable hours for the agency and they're not paying you. You've got to walk. You have to self-regulate that. It's just not right. Call it supply and demand. Call it advocacy. Call it whatever you want to call it, but if interns stop accepting those positions, they'll stop offering them.
So basically, interns, simply complaining and enduring isn't enough. It's time you assert yourselves. Do you agree?

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user adpowers, CC 2.0)
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