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The Case For Internships

America may be the Land of Opportunity, but this is also the land of the Big Trade-Off. Sure, you can have that nice house, but you're going to have to become a mortgage slave to keep it. You can drive that fancy sports car, but you'll have to fork over an insurance premium as hefty as the GNP of some Third World nations. In the Bible it says, in life, if you want honey, you get bees with stingers. For anything worth having, there's price to pay.

It's the same with a career. Most professional positions require experience, but in this classic Catch-22, how does a young college student or graduate gain that experience? Well, it's just as Mark Twain said, "Never let school interfere with our education."

I believe the intern programs in place at companies like Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, CBS, and mine provide the best chance for young people to enter and grow in many professions. Although the work is demanding, with little or no immediate financial return, interning is a textbook example of a win-win situation.

When a young person comes to my public relations company and tells me he's willing to intern, a distinctly modern social contract is entered into. Though he is not a servant, and I am not a teacher, if he does some unpaid work, we'll do some teaching. The company gets the opportunity to observe eager and smart young people who energize the company. Like a farm team, interns are prospective employees, and we get to watch them in action. For the intern, the rewards are far greater.

Firstly, most interns are college students, and nearly all receive valuable college credit for their services. Beyond that, interning teaches the neophyte how to function in a complex, real-life adult business environment. Mike Tyson could have studied boxing manuals his whole life, but he would never have become the Champ if he hadn't stepped into a real ring. No classroom can substitute for visceral, palpable learning in an authentic setting.

Problem solving, initiative, creativity, and cooperation are well fostered as the intern struggles to carve a niche for him/herself. To make it as an intern, one must embody the qualities of any effective worker, and the rewards go far beyond the merely educational. Many interns go on to highly successful careers.

Interning is practical. In an ever-tightening job market, it provides career preparation, enables a young professional to develop marketable skills and demonstrate potential to a prospective employee. But beyond the practicalities, there's a bigger picture that needs to be addressed.

For too many, America has become the Land of the Freeloader and the Home of the Lazy. People seem to want it all, right here right now, with a minimum of effort. Dreams of winning this week's Lotto game have supplanted that dream of building a life built of Freud's twin peaks, "Lieben and Arbeiten," love and work. The old-fashioned work ethic is, if not dead, then surely on the critical list. America says it wants to be No. 1, but many refuse to expend the effort to get there. We can do it, but there's only one way, and that's simply to work for it, and work hard.

For centuries, apprenticeship was the equivalent to today's technical college. The spirit of apprenticeship is still alive in interning. If America's work force whined a little less, and had a little more of the initiative of my highly motivated interns, maybe this country could find a semblance of its former glory. Yes, they do not get paid. But as my interns have so brilliantly demonstrated, nobody works for free.

Michael Levine is the founder of the prominent public relations firm Levine Communications Office, based in Los Angeles. He is the author of Guerrilla PR, 7 Life Lessons from Noah's Ark: How to Survive a Flood in Your Own Life. is a resource for people that want to get famous in the media, without going broke.

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