Do internships—as they exist in today’s economy—really improve student career outcomes?

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Do internships—as they exist in today’s economy—really improve student career outcomes?

Internships are often touted as the ticket to landing a job after graduation.

Research from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has found that employers hire slightly more than half (56.1%) of interns as full-time employees. And a 2018 study by Gallup and Strada Education Network suggests that community college students with relevant work experience are more than twice as likely to land a job immediately after graduation.

But in reality, many of today’s internships amount to little more than coffee runs and grunt work that “pushes well beyond the definition of skill-building,” writes Lydia Dishman for Fast Company.

Case in point: A 2015 NACE survey found that the most common reasons that students report being dissatisfied with their internships are a lack of professional development and a lack of meaningful responsibilities. 

43%

of all internships in 2018 were unpaid
of all internships in 2018 were unpaid

Even more, nearly half (43%) of all internships in 2018 were unpaid, according to NACE—despite the slew of class action lawsuits against big-name media and entertainment companies by unpaid and underpaid interns in recent years. In fact, new guidelines introduced in 2018 by the U.S. Department of Labor have actually made it easier for companies to bring on unpaid interns.

And when employers fail to pay their interns (or provide them with stipends that don’t come close to covering costs of living), it limits who can accept these opportunities.

However, colleges and universities can play a vital role in confirming they’re sending students to high-quality internships—to ensure that students are not only being treated fairly, but are also building skills that will prepare them for the workforce. Here are four ways to vet employers and assess the experience they provide for your students:

1. Reassess degree requirements

Many employers are able to justify not paying interns by offering academic credit. But for low-income students, relocating for an unpaid internship isn’t always possible, and may lead some students to switch degree paths or stop out.

Fast Company‘s Pavithra Mohan recalls that when she was a journalism student, she had to complete a residency program with a media company as a degree requirement. Mohan writes that for her particular program, that meant paying tuition in exchange for the opportunity to work full-time, without pay.

Since Mohan graduated, her school has reassessed degree requirements, and now offers the residency program as an option—rather than a requirement—for interested students. The school also now ensures that the majority of the program’s employers pay their interns.

Still, in a field like journalism, it’s hard to find internships that offer both meaningful experience and ample pay, says Charles Whitaker, dean of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “Everyone says it’s budget,” Whitaker says. “I can’t tell you how many people come to me and say, ‘We can’t pay, but it’s such a great experience. The experience is worth its weight in gold.’ And I say, ‘That may be the case, but it doesn’t pay their rent.’”

Everyone says it’s budget. I can’t tell you how many people come to me and say, ‘We can’t pay, but it’s such a great experience. The experience is worth its weight in gold.’ And I say, ‘That may be the case, but it doesn’t pay their rent.’

Charles Whitaker, dean of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism

2. Interview employers

Jennifer Lowery, internship coordinator at Notre Dame College (NDC) in Ohio, told the EAB Daily Briefing in 2017 that vetting employers is a major priority, since all NDC students are required to complete an internship to graduate.

“We don’t let just anyone come in and partner with us, for a lot of reasons,” says Lowery. “We put a lot of emphasis in vetting employer partners.”

For an internship to be meaningful, employers need to understand their obligation to mentor and educate the intern—not just reap the benefits of cheap labor. 

Lowry says that one of the ways her office vets employers is by meeting with some of them before establishing an internship. During the conversation, they discuss “the emphasis on the students, the mentorship, and the development [of the student] as opposed to what the outcome would be for the company.”

“The [employer’s] mindset doesn’t always start there,” Lowery adds, “but if they’re going to partner with us, it has to finish there.”

Staff at Elon University also interview employers before establishing an internship program, according to Pam Brumbaugh, the director of experiential learning. Brumbaugh told the EAB Daily Briefing in 2017 that the university has had an experiential learning requirement in place since 1994.

Elon career advisors ask employers questions such as:

  • How long will the student be working?
  • Who will be supervising the student?
  • What will the student’s tasks and responsibilities look like? And
  • Does the employer have a physical space and computer for the student?

Brumbaugh acknowledges that some of these questions might seem trivial—but, she warns, they should not be overlooked. For example, employers occasionally don’t consider the issue of physical space before taking on an intern or take the time to think through an intern’s specific tasks. 

After the initial conversations, Brumbaugh says, Elon’s specific academic departments step in to ensure the internships meet the requirements for each course of study.

3. Visit internship sites

The faculty and staff at Elon’s Student Professional Development Center (SPDC) make a habit of visiting the companies where their students intern. During site visits, Elon faculty and staff meet with employers and interns to check up on progress and make sure the experience continues to meet established expectations.

Brumbaugh says site visits are important for maintaining consistency. Just because an employer was vetted once does not mean it will continue to meet standards.

One particular case stands out to Brumbaugh: “We placed a student in a legal situation working with a lawyer who had been superb in past internships,” recalls Brumbaugh. During a site visit, it became apparent that “that particular summer, [the lawyer] was in Singapore and he wasn’t on site.”

Elon pulled the student from that internship, because the educational value of the internship was supposed to derive from the lawyer’s mentorship. “We said ‘no, that is not going to work,'” recalls Brumbaugh. 

4. Empower students

When it comes to securing the best possible experience on both ends, Lowery and Brumbaugh agree that students themselves should play the biggest role in vetting their employers.

Molly O’Connor, a senior consultant with EAB’s Student Affairs Forum, says she sees this approach frequently in her research.

“A lot of schools want to prepare students to manage employer relationships,” O’Connor says, because not every school has the resources to conduct site visits. “The way [to vet these internships] is to empower students to demand value from employers,” O’Connor adds.

A lot of schools want to prepare students to manage employer relationships. The way [to vet these internships] is to empower students to demand value from employers.

Molly O’Connor, senior consultant at EAB

She recommends helping students clarify exactly what they’re looking for in an internship and prepare them to assess whether an employer would offer an educationally meaningful—and relevant—experience.

NDC’s employer vetting process includes a shadow program, which Lowery says is kind of like a “beta test version” of an internship. For up to two days during sophomore year, students can visit a company, speak with employers, and participate in some of the work they would be doing as interns.  

“It’s a way to demo some of our newer partners to see if in fact they will be good internship providers,” says Lowery. “That’s really how we start with our newer partners.”

NDC students also write reflection papers after the shadow period and after they’ve completed a full internship, as well as feedback about the company and whether they’d recommend the internship to other students.

It’s through these reflection papers that Lowery says the vetting really comes into play. “[We see] the validity of the experience altogether to make sure that we’re preparing our students enough… and that the employers are in fact giving the students a good experience.”

“We may not send another student back there based on the student’s experience—or lack thereof,” says Lowery. “We really delve into the feedback.”

(Dishman, Fast Company, 8/19/19; Mohan, Fast Company, 8/21/19; Interviews by Caroline Hopkins for the EAB Daily Briefing)

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