A stint of unpaid work is a rite of passage for young people looking to climb the career ladder. But German internships can drag on for years. The nation's employers had better watch out -- a backlash has begun.
Young people have nothing to lose but their internships
Parents used to tell their children that if they didn't get a good university degree, they wouldn't get a job. These days they still need that degree, but they won't have the slightest chance of nailing their dream job (or any, in fact) without a resume boasting at least a few years' worth of practical work experience -- known in Germany as praktika.
There's nothing wrong, of course, with a little learning-by-doing, but are Germany's legions of fresh-faced 20-somethings being taken for a ride? If they're lucky, they might be pocketing a token payment for their six-month internship, but the chances are they're putting in those hours for free -- especially in attractive but highly competitive fields such as media and the arts.
The idea is that their hard work and enthusiasm will eventually translate into a paid position, but the bitter truth is that this seldom actually happens -- and once one internship is over, the only option is to head straight for the next. Some companies even require their interns to bring with them a certain level of experience, creating a vicious circle that can seem impossible to break.
Not surprisingly, many young Germans feel cheated by the system.
All work, no pay
Twenty-one-year-old Peter Jagla is half-way through an internship with a local radio station in Bonn, but his day is much the same as that of his more senior colleagues -- carrying out research, attending press conferences and writing reports. The difference is -- he doesn't get paid.
"We all know that the German economy is a mess," he said. "What I see happening here is that as soon as people realize they can pass work on to an intern who doesn't cost anything, then they use them to do the sort of work freelancers used to do. I have to make sure I get my foot in the door and take on as much work as possible so that my bosses realize that I'm competent and hire me for a paid two-year internship."
A coveted paid two-year internship, known as a volontariat, is the next step up the ladder after a praktikum, and they are few and far between. Anyone who lands one of these gets a steady salary, supervised training and the possibility of securing a job upon completion.
But not always. Sometimes, too much work experience can actually reflect badly on an aspiring employee.
"Theoretically, a university course that included practical work experience should make internships superfluous," said Bernhard Switaiski from the Federal Labor Agency. "There's nothing wrong with doing one or two three-month internships, but an employer might think that someone who's done three is a bit of a hopeless case."
Success not guaranteed
Gerhard Schröder's coffee was probably made by an intern
But is there an ideal career trajectory? One 27-year-old politics student was shocked to find out that even sticking to the rules doesn't guarantee success. She finished her degree a year ago and graduated cum laude. But despite her excellent academic credentials, her applications for jobs all met with rejections -- even though she did everything by the book.
She got her degree without delaying exams (unusual in Germany, where students in their early 30s are nothing abnormal), speaks four languages fluently, has worked abroad and completed a number of unpaid internships, including one with the European Union.
"I didn't always learn much," she said. "Sometimes all I did was make coffee, and I've even been asked to look after my boss's son. That's not even what annoyed me. What annoyed me was that it was all unpaid. It's completely humiliating and frustrating, you feel useless and exploited and you really have to ask yourself what you're doing it for."
Calling for fairer conditions
She's not the only one. While many young people feel forced to accept the status quo out of desperation, others are fed up with being taken advantage of and have founded an association called "Fairwork," which demands that internships are subject to agreed regulations. These include limiting their duration to three months and receiving at least 700 euros ($830) a month.
But with secure jobs a rare commodity in today's Germany, there will probably always be someone around to pick up the slack.