Unemployment is every student’s worst nightmare. Spending three or more years to walk across a stage and receive a £27,000 piece of paper from someone important that you’ve never heard of before should be enough to save you from destitution.  But the sad truth is, in the current job climate even a degree won’t get you all the way and students spend much of their degrees being told that despite paying thousands of pounds, employers still think they’re fairly useless. For most then, the minimum three years are spent skipping the career workshops and drowning sensible thoughts in beer and £1 shots trying to forget they are living on borrowed time and borrowed money.

But there are always the proactive few who seem to have their lives together, spending their time in the library and networking with professors over muffins. And while there is a lot to be said for initiative and hard work; comparing our achievements (or lack of) and our employability with those around us is not a good way to find motivation. And when others start announcing, at least by second year, that they’ve been offered an internship at the Department of All Things Successful, many students descend into a panic about their career prospects. And while having experience is as attractive to an employer as a degree, students are often so motivated by panic and pressure that they opt for unproductive means of getting it.

Internship has become the latest buzzword in careers. An opportunity to experience the real side of a company, not just the corporate sales pitch designed to entice graduates into lengthy contracts. But internships are a dangerous game for students and they need to be recognised for what they are. Free work. Before going through the process of getting an internship, which is often just as time-consuming as job applications, students need to ask themselves if what they are being offered is really worth their time. While career prospects are undoubtedly going to be more enhanced by hob-nobbing with directors than spending summer stretched over the sofa, it’s probably not worth getting coffee for the head of MI6 if you want to be a vet. And as impressive as internships may seem on a CV it’s worth remembering that at the end of the day an internship is still unpaid work. The few internships that are paid are generally snapped up by the proactive students that spend so much of their time in the library that everyone else wasn’t even aware of their existence, but the unpaid ones are not so few and far between. And there’s a reason for this.

As an employer, interns are a great way to cut costs. While they are often under-qualified and a little professionally naïve, their desperation for a good reference and something to fill the space on their CV makes them willing workers. But interns forget that employers actually value them, a lot of companies wouldn’t function the way they do without interns. To a small company in a specialist field, having someone to do their admin or run a few errands frees up their expenses to focus on expansion. For the intern, it offers an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of a specific field and avoid a mistaken career selection. Often it is not a case of ‘the big bad employer’ and neither is it that students should consider themselves the foundations of the economy, but both need to remember that internships can only go so far. In America, a lawsuit was brought against PBS talk show host Charlie Rose and his production company by unpaid interns who felt their employer had not respected this. Their claim was on the grounds that the level of work they delivered should not have gone unrewarded. The claim stated:

“Employers’ failure to compensate interns for their work, and the prevalence of the practice nationwide, curtails opportunities for employment, fosters class divisions between those who can afford to work for no wage and those who cannot, and indirectly contributes to rising unemployment”.

While the case was settled, the problem it raised remains. Investing excessive amount of time and energy into an internship can detract students from getting a paid job, and employers are always in danger of appearing exploitative. The way internships are perceived needs to change, they are not a substitute for a job and interns do not form a sustainable work force. While universities have a responsibility to further their students’ careers, the increasing emphasis on experience coupled with the endless unemployment statistics in the media is dampening the spirits of the next working generation. Recognising that there is no one way to build a career will go a long way in relieving some of the pressure on students, and encourage them to be more creative with their employability.