Why Are Internships Not Enough?

Internships are as close to a Willie Wonka golden ticket as you can get when it comes to preparation for the workforce. Not only are 70% of interns offered full-time work after their internship but, on average, graduates with internship experience earn more with annual salaries $2,082 higher than graduates without internship experience.

As such, I was interested to see some of the recent data on internships (CompareCamp and SmallBizGenius) and I pulled out a few items that stuck out to me. I also wanted to contextual some of this data with other insights from my own experience, observations, and interviews with employers and students over the past 20 years, and explore how we can expand work-based learning opportunities for students.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Internship Data

The most compelling statistic is, of course, 70% of interns are offered full-time work after their internship. It’s a great place to build skills, grow your network, and do interesting and applied work.

60% of students in each graduating class do an internship. That sounds great until you realize that amounts to approximately 2.7M students doing internships, while 16.3 million college students are not serviced by this opportunity.

Most internships happen after junior year in college and 31% of internships occur after a person has graduated. That’s 1 in 10 internships happening after someone is out of school! I’ll admit I didn’t realize so many people did internships after graduation, no doubt making it that much more competitive for everyone else for slots available.

While more and more companies are paying interns, with some companies offering large sums of money (see Facebook), 43% of internships are still unpaid. That statistic only gets worse when you see that 75% of unpaid internships go to women! One of the worst offenders on the unpaid internship front is the U.S. Government (I’m looking at you U. S. House of Representatives!)

It’s probably also not surprising to see that more people are offered full-time jobs after a paid internship than after an unpaid internship (66.4% vs 43.7%). That might due the level of effort expended by students on unpaid opportunities or that the companies who look for free labor don’t have full-time jobs to offer. Whatever the reason, students should be cautious of unpaid “opportunities.”

What Is the Goal of Internships for Companies?

There are two big reasons why people hire interns: get work done at an affordable rate and to audition talent.

It makes sense you’d pay less for student talent. It shouldn’t be free, but you shouldn’t have to pay top dollar for people who are developing their skills. Because an internship looks great on a resume and often results in a job offer, students are willing to work for less (even free.)

The work itself is usually interesting and can run the gamut from mission critical projects to entry level administrative work. Most of the work can be translated into something resume-worthy and students inevitably develop some of the skills that fall into the “softer” category, like showing up on time, meeting deadlines, asking for help, etc…

I’ve also seen work fall into the categories of “wish list” or “hypothetical projects created explicitly for interns.” I suspect the last two types of projects show up because employers are still testing the talent and want to minimize the ramifications if the work is done poorly. Giving students a “wish list” project or a “made up” project allows them to test the talent in a low-risk environment. If they perform poorly on one of these projects, it’s not the end of the world. It’s less about the specific output of the project and more about observing how students work, think, collaborate, problem solve, and communicate. The output of the project takes a backseat to auditioning the talent, which is one of the key outcomes for employers.

Why Are Employers Willing to Take a Chance on Students?

In my experience, and in conversations with people who’ve hired interns, very rarely do you end up with someone who performs poorly. A few are spectacular and most are pretty good. There are few to none at the bottom of the pile. When a student bails out of an internship early on, it’s more likely due to not getting paid versus poor performance. Hey, you get what you pay for!

Employers are willing to take a chance on a college student for the two reasons above (inexpensive labor and auditioning future talent), and because they are confident in the raw talent based on a typically rigorous vetting process. Paid internships are very competitive and candidates often go through multiple rounds of interviews. Combine that process with the possibility that not every project is mission critical, and you have a pretty safe environment to work with students.

If the project is mission critical, there is usually a full-time employee who is managing the intern and is on the hook for the final deliverable. In other words, there is a system of safety nets around the work.

Why Don’t More Students Take Advantage of Internships?

Why do 40% of seniors on average not participate in an internship? Why do 16.3 million students not take advantage of these types of opportunities before they reach their senior year? It’s likely a combination of factors:

· Not enough formal internships are available.

· Not everyone knows about the opportunities.

· Many students lack the personal or academic network required to get in the door.

· Can’t afford to take an unpaid internship.

· Maybe they apply but don’t make it through the vetting process.

· Freshmen, sophomores, and juniors are competing against seniors and people who have graduated for the limited spots.

How Can We Do Better On the Internship Front?

Some of the improvements are obvious. All internships should be paid. More companies should offer internships. More internships should be virtual.

Some solutions are a little more nuanced. First, let’s not get hung up on the standard definition of “internship.” The benefit around getting work done affordably and helping to build a talent pipeline doesn’t have to only happen in person during the summer months. Moving to year-round virtual internship opportunities would help.

I would also argue companies can/should break down their work into even smaller chunks, thus providing students with shorter, more frequent opportunities to contribute and build their skills. This would potentially increase access to more students, including entering freshmen.

Offering up shorter projects provides its own challenges. For short projects, hiring managers can’t afford to spend time vetting multiple candidates. You can’t take 10 hours to offload a 20 hour project. It’s also critical for the project specifications to be clear and thorough, which is easier said than done. You can’t afford to go back and forth multiple times on a shorter project with a tighter deadline.

These are all challenges worth figuring out, especially if it means reaching the other 16.6 million college students who would like/need paid work-based learning opportunities. These are the problems we are trying to solve at UPSKLS. I’d love your thoughts and comments on your experience with internships and how to think about extending more opportunities to more students.

Passionate @ connecting students, employers, schools to increase access to learning, skills, and jobs for a diverse, equitable economic recovery.