Interns are not just cheap labor

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Interns are not just cheap labor

The American comedy “The Intern” has topped box office rankings in Korean theaters after drawing a surprisingly overwhelming response from Koreans of different generations struggling to find or keep jobs. The movie is about a 70-year-old retired widower Ben Whittaker, played by Robert De Niro, who becomes a senior intern at an online fashion site founded and run by Jules Ostin, played by Anne Hathaway.

Ben, who had been an executive in a phone directory company in the same building where he was interning, becomes a kind of father figure to twentysomething workers including Anne. He is first regarded as human dinosaur in the fast-moving digital age who carries around a handkerchief to hand over to a woman who needs to blow her nose and have a good cry.

He, however, is not ready to be extinct. He gets on Facebook to connect to the digital world. Although he has a minor position in the company, he becomes a valuable asset with wisdom that can only come from long experience and knowledge of the ways of the world.

Anyone who feels squeezed between the analogue and digital generations will relate to the movie. But somehow the good feeling evaporated as soon as I walked out of the theater and into the real world. The movie was clearly intended as a comedy. But somehow, it felt like a fantasy film.

If the human relations officer has to choose from a group of finalists all proven for their English skills with perfect scores in standardized tests like TOFEL or TOEIC and diplomas from American universities, they would recruit someone with internship experience in a foreign company. Internship has long become a must for
students who seek jobs in respectable companies.

The government is promoting a corporate internship program for 125,000 youths over the next three years. Mid-sized companies are also participating. Youth employment should get better, but it is not. Unemployment among young people has hit an all-time high of over 10 percent. No matter how many internship jobs are offered, it won’t be of any use unless hiring is for good.

The local labor market is deeply polarized. It is stratified from the internship stage. Hard-up youths spend their free time and breaks working in convenience stores to earn money to pay for tuition. The students lucky to have parents paying for their university education can concentrate on keeping up their grades and preparing for job entries. They compete to win internships at large well-known companies rather than smaller ones. They cannot get a job if they intern at companies unknown to the HR officers in large companies.

They must do whatever they can to get on internship program in large companies. There are many in their 30s who still intern without any earnings. If they cannot get opportunities at home, they must seek them overseas. But the situation is similar in other countries. Unpaid interns have increased greatly in the U.S. since the 2008 financial crisis. Those lucky to get an internship in large companies must do whatever they can to get on the permanent payroll.

??The U.S. government in 2010 drew up a guideline for unpaid interns amid criticism for their harsh work conditions. Under the rule, internship must be designed to benefit the young people with real training and employment opportunities. Interning at foreign companies at least has returns. Local companies still use interns for free or cheap labor. Young people want opportunities to learn and train at least. It is why young Koreans are rushing to see the movie “Intern” to forget about the cruel reality.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 9, Page 34

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Cheong Chul-gun

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