When Lauren Berger was a college freshman, her mother, a math teacher, saw a news segment on the importance of internships. So, she called her 18-year-old daughter and told her, “Get an internship.”
That turned out to be the best advice Berger ever got, igniting a passion that led to 15 internships, a full-time career as a speaker and author, and a royal title of sorts.
Berger is the self-crowned “Intern Queen,” so stated in her peppy website of that same name and in her recent book, “All Work, No Pay,” which chronicles her career as an intern extraordinaire.
“I was pushed into it by my mother,” she said. “But in that first internship, a light bulb went off, and I realized the importance of networking and professional experiences and of creating goals and taking the necessary steps of going after them.”
A communications major with an interest in the entertainment field, Berger won her first internship by calling a local public relations agency. She used that same direct path to win summer internships with entertainment media firms in New York and California.
“Nobody needs to do 15 internships, but I encourage students to do at least two before they graduate,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in California.
“Getting those two internships is just as important as getting good grades in school. Employers want experience.”
A study released last month by Millennial Branding found that while 91 percent of employers believe that students should have between one and two internships before they graduate, half had not hired any interns in the past six months.
Nationally, about half of internships are unpaid, while others offer token stipends.
In the book “Intern Nation,” author Ross Perlin brings a critical analysis to the surge in internships, contending that the 1 million to 2 million interns schlepping coffee and making copies each year are displacing paid employees. Perlin reports that 3 percent of college students at four-year colleges did internships in 1980; 75 percent do so today.
As internships have multiplied, so have complaints. There have been a spate of lawsuits by interns charging that they were exploited as free labor to perform the menial and grunt jobs normally done by paid employees.
Under the law, unpaid internships must be educational experiences in which the interns receive training under supervision. Interns cannot replace or displace regular employees. However, there’s little monitoring and little attention to reports of abuses.
In her burgeoning “Intern Queen” empire, Berger now uses interns herself but is careful about what she asks them to do. “If my interns are off for the day, my business still runs great,” she said.
Berger understands the criticism that internships favor college students who already have an edge because they can afford to pay to work. They can accept unpaid internship at a New York ad agency or Boston tech firm because their parents pay their costly living expenses.
Berger counters that students can apply for virtual internships, which often involve helping companies with their social media, or seek intern positions in their local communities. Even small towns offer a local radio station, a chamber of commerce or a newspaper, she said.
“Unpaid internships require 15 hours per week. You can easily get that in and still work a paid job waiting tables a few nights a week,” she said.
In her internships, Berger was asked to do menial jobs, including making coffee. That is not a problem, she said, unless that’s all an intern does.
“If you are making coffee as well as researching segments and coordinating guests in the green room at a television studio, I don’t see the problem,” she said.
The value of internships is that they help students define their interests, Berger said.
“No matter what the outcome, you will leave an internship more informed than when you walked in,” she said.
In speaking engagements around the country, parents often approach Berger with the same predicament: “My 25-year-old son graduated college and is now parked on my couch. How do I get him off the couch?”
Berger urges parents to become engaged before their unemployed college grad takes up residence on the living room sofa, prodding their children to investigate internships at the start of college.
“Helicopter parenting does not need to be bad thing,” she said. “The majority of students I see heavily pursuing internship opportunities have their families pushing them to do it.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog