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The Age of the Permanent Intern
Many of the ambitious young people who flock to Washington toil for years as low-paid interns—and count themselves lucky to do so. Is this what success looks like in 2013? By Hannah Seligson
Photo-illustration by Jesse Lenz.
Comments () | Published February 6, 2013

In so many ways, Kate, who was born in 1987, is a perfect reflection of the opportunities and hardships of being young today. She’s smart and motivated and has a degree from an Ivy League school, yet at 25 she worries she’ll never attain the status or lifestyle of her boomer parents. She majored in political science and has a burnished social conscience, something she honed teaching creative writing in a women’s prison. But Kate’s most salient—and at this point, defining—generational trait might be that she doesn’t have a full-time job. Instead, she has been an intern for a year and a half.

Kate moved to DC after dropping out of her first year of law school. She has cycled through one internship at a political organization and another at a media company and is now biding her time as an unpaid intern at a lobbying firm. To make ends meet, she works as a hostess in Adams Morgan three or four nights a week, which means she often clocks 15-hour days.

“I don’t mean to sound like I have an ego, but I am an intelligent, hard-working person,” Kate says. “Someone would be happy they hired me.”

It’s a refrain heard many times from the millions of twentysomething Kates who are scrambling to find jobs with a steady paycheck and benefits. Mostly, though, they want to find a way out of the low-paying—or nonpaying—apprenticeship track. For Kate, it feels more like an internship vortex.

After all, who wants to still be an intern at an age when you should have a 401(k) and a modicum of job security, or at least be earning more than you did at your summer job during high school? “People my age expect to start at the bottom,” Kate says, “but in this economy the bottom keeps getting lower and lower.”

Welcome to the slow, sputtering economic recovery, Generation Y.

• • •

When I ask Kate how many jobs she’s applied for, she says: “Like a million.”

Desperate as she is, the Department of Labor doesn’t consider her to be unemployed, because she has two jobs. Instead, Kate, who often works more than 60 hours a week, is in a class of workers who don’t show up in government reports. She’s one of the “permaterns”—those perpetual interns, mostly in their twenties—who have been battered by the winds of the recession and are holding out hope that the conventional career wisdom that an internship leads to a job isn’t folklore from a bygone era—like the 1990s.

The serial intern isn’t unique to our region. You can find young people languishing at film studios in Los Angeles and magazine empires in New York City. Similarly, Washington’s job pyramid, at least in many industries, often doesn’t start at entry level; it starts at internship. Our area is now home to one of the largest intern-industrial complexes in the country, one that extends well past the bustling summer months.

When Young Invincibles, a youth-advocacy organization in DC, posts a job opening, it gets hundreds of applications. Says cofounder Aaron Smith, 30: “I’m blown away by the number of back-to-back internships and how hard it is to go from an internship into a full-time paid position.”

This is where the permatern phenomenon starts to point toward wider trends in the economy—namely the cutthroat competition for knowledge-economy jobs, the lack of investment in this generation, and the skills gap between what a generation weaned on a liberal-arts education is trained for and what the in-demand skills and professions are right now (i.e., not another poli-sci or English major). The result? For many in Washington, the American dream starts with a highbrow internship that pays $4.35 an hour—then another, and maybe another.

• • •

That’s how much Jessica Schulberg, 22, made for the ten months she worked at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a haven for academics and journalists researching public-policy issues. Every month, before taxes, Jessica was paid a stipend of $700, supplemented by waitressing and bartending at Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill.

“I felt like ten months was a long time to be there,” says Jessica, a 2011 graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara. But with only a bachelor’s degree, she felt she wasn’t qualified for many entry-level jobs, a suspicion confirmed by numerous rejections. The places where she was applying—think tanks and nonprofits—were all “receiving a million applications from people just like me,” she says.

So Jessica went with plan B: two years of graduate school at American University to earn a master’s in international politics. A partial scholarship made the decision easier, but Jessica says she’ll have to go into debt to cover some of the $50,000 a year in tuition. She’ll graduate next year.

Somewhat amazingly, Jessica is upbeat about her situation. The internship at the Wilson Center, a coveted and prestigious position, made her feel like one of the lucky ones. During her longer-than-anticipated stint, she assisted foreign-policy heavyweights like Michael Adler, a foreign correspondent for Agence France-Presse, on a book about diplomacy in Iran. She did research for Mark Mazzetti, a national-security correspondent for the New York Times.

“My friend and I joke that we got paid to read and write about topics that we’re interested in,” says Jessica, an aspiring foreign correspondent.

But talking to her, I wonder: When did “lucky” become working for below minimum wage for months on end? Jessica doesn’t pause when I ask her this—it’s clearly a bargain she has mulled many times: “You either do what you like to do for free or you have an entry-level job for $25,000 where you answer the phone and are someone’s assistant. It’s this weird compromise people my age have to make.”

If you want to work in the foreign-policy arena, as many bright college graduates do, there are some major barriers to entry. And Jessica has made peace with them—mostly.

• • •

Has it always been this hard to break into even the most competitive jobs in DC?

In a word, no.

Take Mazzetti, 38, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of the forthcoming book The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth. Jessica was his research assistant at the Wilson Center.

When he was starting out in the late 1990s, Mazzetti interned at the Economist’s Washington bureau. “In the old days, there were internships in journalism that gave paths to more regular jobs,” he says. For example, his internship turned into a “super-stringer” position that sent him to Austin, Texas. “I could pay the rent, and it was a blast,” he recalls.

“It does seem like, in general, it is harder to get anything full-time and permanent in Washington now because of the economy,” Mazzetti says. “Young and incredibly smart people have to take jobs for no money or very little money.”

Internship coordinators around town say they’re seeing more applicants with advanced degrees and previous internships than in the past. At the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank, about seven young people apply for each $7.25-an-hour intern slot. Those positions are coveted because many see a Heritage internship as an entry point into other policy or law jobs in DC, says Heather Pfitzenmaier, director of the foundation’s Young Leaders Program.

But the full-time jobs that are supposed to follow a prestigious internship aren’t as plentiful as they once were. “At the end of 2007, every intern had a job lined up,” Pfitzenmaier says. Now more are going on to another internship after the Heritage Foundation stint.

Similarly, a 2012 study by Millennial Branding, a research and consulting firm aimed at Generation Y, found that while 91 percent of the 225 surveyed employers said students should have one to two internships before they graduate, half of the employers hadn’t hired any interns in the previous six months. In other words, internships don’t always lead to a job offer.

That means that a lot of twentysomethings are layering internships in their immediate post-college years and not landing a real full-time job until they’re at least 24 or 25—so a chunk of this generation is deferring their earning potential for at least half of their twenties.

To get one of the most sought-after internships—the kind you need before you can get a job with benefits—it’s increasingly necessary to have apprenticed somewhere else first. At the Corcoran Gallery of Art, for example, which gets around 250 applicants and accepts 6 to 15 each fall, spring, and summer, those with prior internships have an advantage, says Susannah Brown, who until recently was the museum’s internship coordinator.

Aaron Smith of Young Invincibles wonders if all these apprenticeships are working against his generation. When prospective employers see internships of long duration, they might understandably wonder: Why didn’t the person get hired by the organization after working there for a year?

Smith takes a more forgiving stance: “Usually, it’s just a case of people holding out for a job opening that didn’t pan out.”

Those internships that offer a pathway to a full-time position are that much more competitive. At the Atlantic Media Company, which publishes the Atlantic and several other magazines, Katherine Cusani-Visconti, senior vice president for talent and culture, says a high percentage of fellows move into other roles in the organization. But an internship at the company—which includes an educational component and “full immersion” into one of the business units—is among the toughest to land: The company receives 1,000 résumés for 25 positions. That’s about a 2-percent acceptance rate.

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  • notaquarterback

    Folks need to leave the cooler cities and head for rural and exurban regions where they're starved for young talent. You won't be the only young person and while it might be boring, you'll get lots of experience, you'll add to your resume and be paid okay in the process. Then after a few years, you can go someplace more interesting if you want. But I tell my permainterning friends that they need to cut it out, because it's not really getting them anywhere.

  • Demographer

    #boomsday Just means we will not pay for social security, ect

  • Alyssa A

    "And therein lies one of the greatest divides between the haves and the have-nots of twentysomethings in this city. Can your parents cover some of your living expenses while you take one low-paying—but potentially career-building—internship after another?"

    Why no talk about this divide? What if the answer to that question is no? This article seems one-sided in that that many of those 20somethings mentioned sound very lucky to have financial support from family. Some of us are forced to go in directions (retail, foodservice, sales-marketing, education) we would prefer not to post graduation out of necessity.

  • RMGH

    Ok - 3 observations:
    1. STEM isn't a cure-all - even in fields where people keep clanging the alarm bells for more stem people - the market is showing a GLUT. If there were a true shortage, salaries would be going up at a rapid clip. Employers would be willing to train people who lacked something minor. That's not happening.

    2. Undergraduate training is 4 years. Graduate training is a minimum of 2 years and can extend for 8 years. How is a student supposed to know what the market is going to look like 4-12 years in advance of graduation? Did you know in 2009 what our market and world would look like in 2013? Of course not! For all those patting themselves on the back because they made the "right choices" I would say no you were just LUCKY.

    3. Although I applaud that these young people are sacrificing for their dreams, I find the trend to be very worrying. There is no ladder up for people without money or even for the middle class with limited means. That is already skewing our representative government towards the monied elite. This only solidifies that trend. The kids doing this are privileged financially. The last thing we need is more of that in DC.

  • HN

    While I agree with some points of this story, this girl doesn't have that much to whine about. She is still getting her experience, and her parents are bankrolling her rent. I had to do my education on student loans, rent and everything, my parents didn't help me with a dime, they were at best hostile about having to cosign on my loans. The kids with nobody to cosign and who receive no financial aid are the ones who should be writing this article. I've dug my own path through internships (2/3) paid, and had to go into debt for a half a year DC unpaid internship. The whining about your individual major preventing you from a job is also bull, the economy is actually in a recovery stage right now whether it seems like it or not, and if you look, you can find a job, but that means being willing to move to Vermont when you're in Florida or Alaska when you're in Texas. You won't find something in the same city, or even the same side of the country, but if you look, you will find. You also have to be willing to put work into something that might not be your dream job or field, but will get you the experience you need for your dream setting. I will be working for the government at the end of my current internship, I am in the works of negotiating 5+ government job avenues/offers none of which are even in the same agency. You have to learn how to look is what I've found, at least from the public sector perspective. As long as you are not picky, and can uproot, finding a government job should be relatively simple. Despite the sequester I think the market for the private sector is rougher, and they treat you worse. But then again, who needs labor laws anyway right? :P It take studying and planning, but if you put the effort in it will pay off when looking for public sector work.

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Posted at 10:40 AM/ET, 02/06/2013 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles