Like many people in today’s economy, I’m currently unemployed. Not for lack of skills, talent, or initiative, and there’s no one to blame for my current state (besides perhaps myself, but I won’t venture down that path).
My career path has been wobbly, and you could say that I’m trying to change careers now, but I don’t think I actually had one before–just jobs. A job is part of a career, but a career is not only a job. And here at the beginning of mine, I face a difficult start.
Arruda and Dixson say in their book Career Distinction that a career is not a ladder, each promotion a new rung, but a career is a ramp that you must constantly be climbing. Right now, that ramp is sitting on top of a sheer cliff.
At the ALA conference in New Orleans, I had the opportunity to speak with the Associate Dean and Head of Recruitment at the University of Florida Libraries, where I would love to work. He recommended that I pursue internships there to get started, especially since I have no current library experience.
And that’s the cliff I’m staring at: experience. In the library field it seems especially rough (though I’m sure other people would say their fields are just as difficult) because many people go back to school for their master’s degree after they’ve been working in a library for a while and decide that they’d like to move up in the ranks. I got a job doing web development after I finished my bachelor’s, and then decided that a library science degree would be a good next step. I continued to work full-time while I was in school, so by the time I graduated, I didn’t have any library experience to back up my degree, and I was competing with lots of people who did.
I didn’t have the time for internships while I was in school, and the necessity of work experience in a library wasn’t emphasized in my program. I think that in programs like Information and Library Studies, internships should be mandatory (with the ability to substitute current or past work experience). It would have been a bother at the time to give up a decent wage at my job to get my interning hours, but it would have been worth so much to me in my current jobless situation.
And of course it is all about wages. I believe that people should always be paid for their work. I have always been opposed to unpaid internships because it devalues the intern. If someone is getting paid to do a job, their supervisors will spend time making sure that the employee gets the training and attention they need to do the job correctly, so their money isn’t wasted. If someone isn’t getting paid, the quality of their work becomes less relevant, the intern feels less important, and the endeavor is less productive for everyone.
You might make out unpaid internships to be the apprenticeships of the modern day, but they’re not alike at all. In the Middle Ages, apprentices were not paid, but they lived with the person they were studying under. Their lodging, food, and other necessities were provided. If a librarian offered to house and feed me while I was an intern at the library, it would no longer be an unpaid internship. (Any librarians out there interested? I’m a decent cook!)
I don’t think student internships are quite the same. If you are still in school, internships often are for academic credit, which works as a form of payment. If the student has scholarships or would otherwise not have to be employed full-time to support themselves while they’re in school, the internship counts as study rather than work. When people have to support themselves, having an unpaid job is difficult at best and often impossible. I am lucky to have a boyfriend, parents, and some meager freelance-able skills to help support me if I take an unpaid internship. But it will still be difficult.
Standing here looking up at the cliff that my career is resting on, I’m still inclined to accept an unpaid position. And that is why unpaid internships are still able to exist, despite everyone’s right to be paid for their work. The transition into a professional career is so steep that it’s often the only option.