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At school, Roman aced her project, racked up 20 credits by year's end, passed the state Regents exam and was invited back to intern at the congressman's office this fall. "Maybe I'll even steal one of their jobs when I graduate," she muses.
SHOULD INTERNSHIPS PAY?
Because it is part of her schoolwork, Roman's internship is unpaid. The subject of pay is a sore point with critics. "It's ridiculous that kids will enter the work world bearing tens of thousands of dollars in college debt, and still be expected to work for free," says Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt.
When desirable internships don't pay, they exclude all but the affluent, who can afford to skip paychecks for that career-launching stint carrying a record producer's bags or holding swatches for a famous fashion designer. But many reputable employers, mindful of that inequity (or just sick of rich kids), now pay at least minimum wage.
Kevin Cox, the orthopedic surgeon who founded the internship program at Health Central hospital in Florida, insisted interns be paid $7 an hour. "That way, we can compete with Disney World and all the other places these kids could work," says Cox. Still he had to battle "old-timer" colleagues who harped that truly motivated kids would work for free. Nonsense, says Cox. "I'm adamant that that is not fair to our less privileged population. Paying them puts everyone on equal territory."
If Paloma Saez's internship hadn't been paid, she says, "my parents would have liked me to take a job on the side." As a high schooler interested in both art and science, Saez, 16, interned this summer at the art conservation lab of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. For $9 an hour for four days a week, she helped test and catalog materials used in sculptures.
Getting such an early start on the career path can only help Saez decide where she wants to wind up, says her mentor and boss at MoMA, Chris McGlinchey. "I had a postdoctoral student write me the other day saying she had just happened upon conservation science," he says. "She had never realized you could combine art and science, and now she's scrambling to try to redirect her career this way."
CAN INTERNSHIPS HELP TEENS GET INTO COLLEGE?
Paid or unpaid, some high schoolers and their parents hope internships will pay off in the increasingly high-stakes scramble for spots at top colleges.
Forget it, say some. "They don't help," says Frank Walsh, college guidance counselor at the all scholarship selective Regis School in New York City. "Colleges would much rather you did a college-level calculus course last summer than interned at an investment firm" one reason Regis gives students the option of internships only during the spring of senior year, when the application ordeal is over.
But Cox of Health Central's internship program points out that internships expose young people to accomplished adults in their desired professions a great source for standout recommendations, many of which he has penned for his former interns.
Ricky Malvar says he feels certain his enthusiasm about his Microsoft internship won over his interviewer at his top-choice school, the University of Southern California.
Malvar was among 500 to apply for 35 spots at the Bellevue, Wash., software giant. "Here I am, I'm 16 and working with 46-year-olds on the same projects," he'd marvel. Tasked with finding bugs in a flight simulator, he didn't know which was harder to learn: the programming language or the language of work. "I had to speak and write in a way that adults would understand, or the project would be at risk," he says. "They dress in shorts there, but it's still a very serious business."
PREPARING FOR THE WORLD OF WORK
Research shows internships help prepare youth for the world of work in other subtle ways. "Collaboration is complex," says Reed Larson, a psychologist at the University of Illinois who studies adolescent development. "Learning to understand a point of view, coordinating strategies, influencing key people I think it's essential that people start learning these skills at an early age." Schools and jobs at McDonald's don't teach those tools, she adds.
Even the mental stress of work on youth might have a lasting positive effect, says Jeylan Mortimer, sociologist at the University of Minnesota and author of Working and Growing Up in America, helping them better cope with stress when they entered the real work world.
But in a culture already obsessed with work, can thrusting kids into the realm of deadlines and BlackBerries be entirely healthy?
It may be too late for some kids. If he weren't interning at the nature conservancy group Wave Hill in the Bronx this summer, Filipp Kotsishevskiy, 16, says he'd be filming his own movie, starting a business or volunteering abroad. "I feel like I could wind up doing anything, so the earlier you can try stuff out, the better," he says.
His mother, Elena, sighs. "Actually, I just want him to take a vacation."