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The virtues of internship grunt work

Occasionally a really bad idea gains currency and credibility. Here's one: College students who work at unpaid internships are unfairly exploited by money-grubbing capitalists. In fact, goes this argument, the whole system is not only immoral but probably illegal and should be abolished.

In his book "Intern Nation," Ross Perlin garnered a lot of attention with the allegation that internships are a "labor racket." The New York Times recently ran a front-page story that tilted heavily in a left-leaning, anti-intern direction. One intern at a Manhattan talent agency described his experience as "basically three wasted months." Another actually sued Harper's Bazaar magazine because her assignment included "real grunt work, lugging things around."

We have some advice for students graduating this month or returning to school next fall: Don't listen to such whiny, self-indulgent claptrap. Internships can teach invaluable lessons. Most entry-level jobs include "real grunt work," and there's nothing wrong with starting at the bottom. They also place a high premium on energy and initiative, and if you waste three months, it's probably your own fault.

Moreover, internships are by far the best way to get a full-time job, and we say that based on a fair amount of experience. Cokie has mothered and mentored a generation of young people at ABC and NPR. Steve has taught at George Washington University for more than 20 years and has counseled hundreds of students. One of them, Heather Clapp Date, interned at CNN during her senior year and was hired before she even graduated.

"My internship experiences," she says, "confirmed my career interests, helped me build a professional network of industry contacts, and eventually led to my first post-college job and more jobs after that."

The system is far from perfect. Some bosses don't understand their obligations, assigning interns to make coffee and copies without ever including and instructing their young charges. More seriously, students who pay their own bills often cannot afford unpaid internships, so the kids with rich parents get yet another leg up.

It certainly would be fairer if more employers paid their interns. Failing that, colleges should try to help needy students take advantage of these opportunities. Even a grant of $2,000 or $3,000 can buy a semester of freedom from waiting tables or stamping library books. Steve's department at George Washington uses a generous gift from CNN's Larry King to do exactly that.

But just because a system is flawed does not make it a failure. Many new job seekers encounter bosses who say, "We cannot hire you because you don't have experience." And of course the applicants reply, "How can I get experience if you won't hire me?"

The way to crack open that circle of frustration is through internships. Listen to another of Steve's former students, Molly Wade: "Without my internship, I probably would have had to move back in with my parents after college. Instead, I had five semesters of professional experience on my resume and a network of people to call on as graduation approached. One of those people hired me, and three years later, I manage the marketing and communications for the Trust for the National Mall."

Brooke Miller took an internship in the publicity department of a Washington-based theater company. "It wasn't always glamorous," she says. "I spent my fair share of time in the copy room, but I learned a lot about what a publicist does."

Miller also made friends and contacts. "When I saw a publicity job posting at another theater, I went to one of my supervisors, and he immediately reached out to the person doing the hiring since they were friendly." A week later, she had the job.

Internships often teach the value of working hard, paying attention and taking a chance. "Like most things in life," says Heather Date, "I believe an internship experience is what you make of it." Amanda Lilly was working at an economics newsletter last summer when its social-media director suddenly took sick. Lilly volunteered to manage the company's Twitter account in his absence, and when the director retired, Lilly was in position to seize a "golden opportunity." Her internship ended on a Friday, and her job began on Monday.

Employers hire interns because it saves time and money when they don't have to advertise a job or plow through a stack of resumes. Besides, interns are already trained and tested.

"An internship benefits both the organization and the intern," says Jacqui Corba, who is finishing a stint at CBS. "It's a win-win."

She's smart. Hire that young woman!

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.