Job Talk

Are internships outdated?

Written by Guest Contributor

Many college degree programs include expectations or requirements for completing internships. Countless corporations both large and small offer internships of varying types. Many times these internship positions are highly coveted and competitive. Not without good reason — internships have been shown to create a number of substantial benefits in the education and workforce ecosystem.

However, naysayers are raising concerns that the internship-driven climate in many industries is causing a number of damaging realities and trends. A growing number of voices are calling for a reassessment of how internships work.

The unraveling of internships: unpaid labor and the class divide

In a climate in which the national student debt crisis is reaching a sobering severity, higher education is an increasingly costly proposition. And internships form a large piece of that pie. One dramatic problem with how internships often work is the fact that many of them are unpaid positions. Interns are “hired” to take on often significant responsibilities but aren’t paid for their work. The value proposition made to students is historically couched in the experience gained and the favorable boost that an internship (especially for a well-known company) can theoretically give a graduate’s resume and prospects for securing an entry-level job.

Except that the truth about the benefits of internships isn’t so clear. A recent survey analyzing the actual benefits of internships found no discernible difference between the employment prospects of graduates who had completed an unpaid internship and those of graduates who had never completed an internship. If the benefits of having an internship on one’s resume don’t actually provide tangible benefit to his or her job search, that significantly erodes the rationale behind taking on the strain of an unpaid internship.

In addition to the potential benefits of unpaid internships not being as lucrative as they’ve been reported to be, the requirements made by the unpaid internship structure also create a more insidious reality. To be able to take on an unpaid internship (which would often last months or even a year), a student would need their needs provided for by something other than a paycheck. Only students who are either independently wealthy or who have families with enough expendable income to support their livelihoods for long periods of time would have access to internships like this. Internships thus inherently cause class division – only those from families of a certain economic standing would be able to take advantage of them.

COVID’s impact on internships

COVID-19 has exerted unprecedented pressure both on corporations of all types and on higher education students and graduates. Internships provide a central link between these populations – as COVID’s effects have strained many core aspects of business, internship programs have also undergone significant shifts and difficulties. This was particularly affecting in the 2020 spring season as students across the country watched their summer internship opportunities change or disappear: “Of the employers that are continuing with their internships, 75% have made at least one change to their internship program,” said Edwin Koc, director of research, public policy and legislative affairs for the National Association of Colleges and Employers. “About 40% of them are introducing a virtual internship, another 40% are shortening the internship by delaying the start date of the internship and about 20% are reducing the number of interns they’re going to bring on board in the summer.”

Though the most difficult COVID-induced change and uncertainty might be behind us as of December 2021, fundamental shifts will leave their etches on the economic and corporate landscape for years to come. This will include not only how internships are conducted but how they are valued and perceived both now and in the future.

America’s labor shortage: the rise of no experience jobs

Months after the first reports of a labor shortage, businesses continue to feel the effects. A lack of workers has forced businesses to reduce hours, limit services, and even close their doors. For consumers, it’s led to limited inventory, shipping delays, and higher prices. And despite increasingly competitive employment offers, there’s no end in sight.

Seismic shifts in the employment landscape have changed the available workforce, pay, connecting the right skills with the right job openings, and operations due to continued complications due to COVID and other factors. Because of this, unpaid internship opportunities will become moot, unattainable, or unattractive to huge numbers of students and recent graduates that will take other types of work or paid jobs due to opportunity or necessity. Some industries will remain largely inaccessible outside traditional internship routes but for many organizations, internships (and especially non-paid ones) will be increasingly difficult to maintain.

The intern shift: the future of internships in America

Entities across both private and public spheres are making efforts to change how internships work. Legislation is being designed and enacted to protect interns from being inappropriately utilized. Internship programs are being diversified and adjusted to better serve the students that partake in them. A number of organizations around the world are developing “micro-internships” – internship opportunities that vary from traditional internship structures and are much more accessible to students of a wide range of backgrounds and economic standings.

Internships are undergoing fundamental changes in many areas of the educational and economic landscape. The large-scale forces mentioned above will continue to shape what tomorrow’s internships will look like for future generations.

About the Author:
Abby Thompson has worked as a young adult education consultant for the past six years. Her passion is to teach future generations about business and S.T.E.M and the impact business technology will have on their lives.

About the author

Guest Contributor