Best Defense

Thanks 4 your service, now pay your dues!

By Christopher Evanson Coast Guard Co-Chair, Best Defense Council of Former Enlisted Last week I began an unpaid internship at the U.S. Department of State. For the next two months, I will have the unique opportunity to observe and collaborate with diplomats and civil servants. I might even rub elbows with an ambassador in the ...

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By Christopher Evanson
Coast Guard Co-Chair, Best Defense Council of Former Enlisted

Last week I began an unpaid internship at the U.S. Department of State. For the next two months, I will have the unique opportunity to observe and collaborate with diplomats and civil servants. I might even rub elbows with an ambassador in the maze of corridors that is the Harry S. Truman building, otherwise known as the HST.

In this town, unpaid internships are in abundance. Actually, they are a Washington, D.C. rite of passage. Local universities — including my own — plaster the exterior of city buses and purchase expensive stadium advertisements in order to showcase the internship statistics of its student body.

But here’s the thing. I will turn 33 years old in June. I am a father of a three-year-old daughter. Why in the world am I doing an unpaid internship?

In full disclosure, I sought this opportunity out. I applied through the labyrinth that is known to government office seekers as USAJobs.gov, and navigated a rigorous security clearance process. I did this because I believe the internship is a necessity in my personal transformation from enlisted petty officer to a bona fide working professional, at least if I want to serve in the federal government.

Then something interesting happened. I met a new intern this week who reported to the bureau for which I am assigned, and he said something truly fascinating to me. “Chris, we were selected for our positions among thousands of highly qualified candidates.” And he is absolutely right.

But here is the thing: The unpaid intern telling me this was a 37-year-old military veteran. He too enlisted. Who would have thought that two military veterans with honorable discharges with a combined age of 70 would cross paths as unpaid interns at the epicenter of American diplomacy?

I am grateful for this opportunity to serve — regardless of compensation — because part of me believes an unpaid internship, absent a viable alternative, is a necessary evil in order to acquire sustained employment. In contrast, the practical part of me thinks it is perverse that two military veterans have to provide unpaid labor to the U.S. government in order to have a competitive advantage. Because I desire and value public service to my nation, I am willing to sacrifice pay for a shiny resume bullet and the experience that comes with it.

But the question I routinely ponder is this: Why is this necessary? Moreover, why are the rigors of unpaid labor a requisite for the sake of potential employment despite having served in uniform for more than a decade? Sure, I could wait tables at any number of the high grossing restaurants in this aggressively gentrifying city if I need to pay rent. But that is not why I turned down a significant promotion in the military and enrolled at a top-tier undergraduate program for international relations. I have a bias for action and I want to be part of the solution to our nation’s many challenges. Yet the barriers to entry are high.

In December, the Washington Post profiled the struggles of millennials in landing government jobs. Among the challenges the article cited was the influx of military veterans into the applicant pool.

“Millennials who want to try their hand at government work often find themselves having to compete with older, more experienced candidates — or older military veterans — who often are given preference in hiring, even for entry-level jobs.”

But such a sentiment is insincere. Especially among those who were enlisted. Most veterans that I know, mostly enlisted, have found the federal hiring process paralyzing. And this is not a secret in Washington.

Take for instance the Pathways Program, an internship program that was created two years ago to provide a bridge into government service for aspiring candidates. Many of the internships offered through the Pathways Program for recent graduates are paid positions, and provide full-time employment on the back end for successful candidates. However, the program to date has been an absolute failure, as described in the Washington Post: “The agency has made a push to train human resources staff in the basics of hiring. The training also is supposed to improve the government’s largely ineffective Pathways internship program, which was started two years ago to help launch young people on a federal career but is so beset by problems that only a trickle of workers has been hired.”

Thus, the route of the unpaid intern seems the logical step. Tomorrow morning, I will press my shirt, and try yet again to perfect the four-in-hand knot. I will report for duty at HST and walk the halls of American diplomacy, hoping that this could be the day of my big break. As such, I am content with being a 33-year-old unpaid intern. Because at the end of the day, it is an opportunity, and that is all one can ask for.

As for what my wife thinks, that is a column unto itself.

Christopher P. Evanson served ten years in the U.S. Coast Guard as a public affairs specialist, leaving as a petty officer first class in 2012. He deployed globally to China, Guyana, and Haiti. He is now pursuing his bachelors at the American University School of International Service, specializing in U.S. foreign policy, with a minor in international business. He co-holds the Coast Guard chair on Best Defense’s Council of the Former Enlisted.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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