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Learning to Earn


Pay-to-intern services promise a lot of hand-holding—and that's not a good thing

Fall Internship Pays Off with Coveted Winter Internship

NEW YORK—New York University student Dave Werner announced Monday that he has successfully parlayed an unpaid fall internship at the magazine GQ into a long-sought-after unpaid winter internship at the ESPN network…Werner added that his main goal is to use his connections at ESPN to secure a highly desirable spring internship that could possibly offer school credit and a modest travel stipend. (Jan. 10, 2008)

The Onion was dead-on with this send-up of the increasingly over-the-top internship craze that has more and more students feeling they must intern earlier and more frequently so as not to feel they're left behind in the mad scramble for the most desirable post-graduate full-time positions. But for once, the satirical publication actually didn't take the joke far enough: In today's competitive landscape, some students aren't just interning for free. They're paying to work.

Intern-placement services such as Fast Track Internships charge students a fee and match them up with potential employers. Fast Track charges $799 for an unpaid internship and $999 for a paid internship, and guarantees the customer will receive at least one offer. Recent grads looking for an entry-level opportunity can pony up $1,999 for two offers or more.

All for a Tidy Little Fee

Other organizations actually plan the entire experience from start to finish. The Washington Internship Institute is a nonprofit that provides D.C.-based government-related internships to students for a $4,500 fee. Housing, which is optional, is an additional $4,000. Participants receive class credit for their experiences.

But perhaps the most successful example of the pay-to-intern business model is the University of Dreams, which provides internships and summer housing in desirable locales, such as New York and Barcelona, to any student with a 2.8 GPA or higher and the financial wherewithal to pay $5,000 to $10,000, depending on the internship location. The for-profit company has grown from 73 participants in 2001 to more than 1,300 in 2008.

What's the selling point? University of Dreams CEO Eric Lochtefeld likens the program to a study-abroad experience and says that it makes it easier for students from schools without tight internship connections to get the experience. The value added is set out in the program's Web site: "We make it possible for you to work in a big-city internship without the headache of trying to coordinate such an adventure on your own." They also offer such helping hands as "staff-assisted practice runs on subways."

That's where they lose me. Without the headache? That's half the value of internship experience—if you're really looking to grow and learn to fend for yourself.

Let's set aside another major objection to the program—the separation of those who can afford it from those who can't. Looking back at my own first internship, in New York, I realize the truly important career-related skills I developed had everything to do with being forced to juggle that exciting, first-shot-at-a-byline assignment with a huge leak in my dirty, old sixth-floor walk-up apartment building. (And there were a lot of leaks.)

Where's the Nitty-Gritty?

Isn't it almost necessary to fall on our face once or twice along the way in order to stand stronger in the end? "If everything is taken care of for you, you can't test yourself,” says Sheila Curran, career services director at Duke University career services director and author of Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads. Her book delves into the diverse career options—and paths—open to those with traditional liberal arts degree.

In our hand-held, helicopter-parent society of safety blankets and SAT tutors from the age of 10, when does this endless adolescence finally screech to a halt? If not in the down-and-dirty trenches of ground-level employment, when else?

Perhaps this is some leftover guilt from my own unpaid internship at the bottom of the career ladder. I tried to break into the tough field of journalism with not much experience and had to seek financial assistance from my parents just to squeak by. But I also learned a lot about myself—and where my strengths and weaknesses lay—through the personalities I encountered and barriers I found myself up against. Every subway ride was an adventure.

University of Dreams says it educates its participants through résumé-building seminars or job etiquette sessions. But that's hardly the same as the education you receive in dealing with the frustrations of the many e-mails and calls that go unreturned and the endless résumé submissions that don't spark any interest. Then finally, when you're not expecting it, a call comes in with an interview request…and you feel the thrill of perseverance.

That's something you can't put on Visa.

Gerdes is a staff editor for BusinessWeek in New York.

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