Overqualified grab internships to survive

With a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, a master’s from Cambridge and a few years of work experience, Bill Brower, 26, thought he would have his pick of offers in Washington when he began the hunt for a job in his chosen field, sustainable development.

Nine months later, Mr. Brower is working alongside college students and living off a small stipend as an intern at the Washington-based nonprofit GlobalGiving.

Mr. Brower is just one of many job seekers in Washington who have had to settle for fetching coffee and making photocopies as low-paid or unpaid interns. In these hard economic times, young people hoping to find full-time entry-level jobs on Capitol Hill or with nonprofit groups are settling for much less.

“I was really thinking I would make it to the interview stage, and once I was in an interview I would represent myself very well,” Mr. Brower said. “But I wasn’t even getting to that stage. I wasn’t even getting the ‘We’re reviewing your application.’ ”

Many organizations are reporting that highly credentialed applicants are accepting internships as a way to cope with tough economic times. Many see the interns as future employees, and the interns envision the same thing. But for many, working for little or no money is the only way to get a job.

In January, after nearly five months of searching for a job, Mr. Brower was offered an internship at GlobalGiving, a charity that allows donors to target funds to small, locally run projects around the world. Although the internship is usually unpaid, the organization offered Mr. Brower a small stipend because of his impressive background including studying in England at one of the world’s most prestigious universities.

“Luckily, I could defer my loans for a year,” he said. “If I had to pay my loans right now, then I don’t know if I would be making enough money to live.”

GlobalGiving has made exceptions to an internship program that typically was offered exclusively to students as it received more applications from graduates and people with years of work experience.

“We have definitely seen a number of intern applicants that are overqualified,” said Joan Ochi, director of communications for GlobalGiving.

She added, “In the past, we haven’t got a lot of engineers and people with those backgrounds applying for our internships, but this year I’ve seen a lot more of that.”

Another GlobalGiving intern is a former stage actress who performed in “Les Miserables” on Broadway and served on the board of trustees for the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts.

Many local organizations and intern placement programs report feeling the fallout from the tight job market.

“We definitely have an increase in the number of recent grads, one or two semesters out of college,” said Patrice Lee, media relations director for the Fund for American Studies.

The program, which offers academic instruction and places students in internships in Washington, has had an 11 percent increase in intern applications overall and a record 400 candidates this summer.

After searching for six months after college graduation, Molly Canfield, 23, took the advice of her high school headmaster.

“I remember he just said, ‘Molly, it might be that kind of thing where you have to go and sell yourself for six months and work for free in order to gain experience that will allow you to get paid later on,” she said.

She took two unpaid internships, working half the week at Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit consumer organization, and the other half in a lawmaker’s office on Capitol Hill. On weekends, she works in a part-time job to help pay the bills.

“I will go on Monday to Food & Water Watch, and make calls to people in our network and ask if they are interested in setting up a meeting with [their] representative to talk about our school milk campaign,” Miss Canfield said. “Then I would go to the Hill on Tuesday and I would answer those same calls. … I was really getting to experience government from both sides.”

As she nears the end of her internships, Miss Canfield said that though she has gained a few more bullet points for her resume, she does not feel much closer to finding a permanent paid position. Neither of her offices is hiring entry-level employees.

“I know I have experiences that I will take with me, but it doesn’t make it any less hard to find someone to read my resume,” she said.

An internship can be a good way to gain employment in an organization or transition in a career, said Linda Bayer, founder and executive director of the Washington Internship Program.

“Also, in a bad economy, entry is from the bottom, and a lot of our interns get opportunities they wouldn’t have because they have other older employees or staff they had to let go,” Ms. Bayer said. “But the company still has as many requirements, so they give more work to the interns and they look and watch them.”

Ms. Ochi said GlobalGiving has benefited from having people with degrees and more diverse backgrounds, but the organization generally does not offer its interns full-time jobs.

“In the past we have hired a few people,” she said. “Our needs have expanded over time … but we generally don’t put that out there as an offer. … It’s more of a case-by-case basis, [because] right now there are no openings for entry-level people.”

Mr. Brower said he is not discouraged by his situation, even though his internship is nearing an end.

“I know how much money I could be making if I just decided to do any chemical engineering job. I could be making enough money to live very comfortably, at least at my age. I know what I want to do and I’m not going to settle,” he said.

Calling himself the “eternal optimist,” Mr. Brower said, “I understand there’s so many people applying to so many of these jobs that I don’t particularly take it personally. I don’t think it’s a reflection on me.”

About the Author

Jillian Badanes

Jillian Badanes presents the day’s top news stories in the daily “Morning Briefing” video. Check out the latest “Morning Briefing” here. Jillian graduated from The George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs with a major in Journalism and Mass Communication and a minor in International Politics. She spent her early years in London, England and Connecticut before ...

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