Internships can ease the path from college to career — but they often don’t.
February 12, 2020
It’s becoming increasingly clear how critical internships are in landing a job after college and accelerating one’s career. So I was very interested when I learned that Matthew Hora, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who studies the path from college to career, had turned his attention to internships because I knew he would challenge some common assumptions.
Hora’s expertise and background is unusual for a person in this field: While economists usually dominate the discussion about the world of work, Hora is an anthropologist. His qualitative approach attempts to shed light on the messy process by which companies hire talent and people seek out work.
For example, his book, Beyond the Skills Gap: Preparing College Students for Life and Work, poked at the common assumption about why American companies (and especially Wisconsin companies) are dealing with a skills mismatch or a skills shortage — that they can’t find workers with the necessary training to fill positions, particularly in manufacturing, the trades, and various “middle skills” jobs. (You know the refrain: “Who needs all these highfalutin college grads when we need welders!”)
Hora unpacks that assumption to show that the “skills gap” might actually be a result of broader trends in the job market and peculiar biases at companies. A workplace is a culture, Hora notes, and employers often look for people who will fit into that culture, regardless of their technical skills. Maybe companies are looking for “purple squirrels” — candidates who are impossibly perfect for the position, who need no training. Maybe employers are looking for hard-working kids from Wisconsin farms, not the city kids from Milwaukee — preferences that signal some possible racial bias. Maybe the problem is less of a skills gap and more of a wage gap — Wisconsin companies are just not offering as much as employers in Chicago or Houston.
Lately, though, Hora and researchers at his Center for Research on College to Workforce Transitions have turned their attention to internships. Their importance to the college-to-career pipeline is well known. Hora points out that studies indicate that applicants are more likely to get a call back from prospective employers if an internship is listed on the resume, and students who had an internship in college were more likely to be employed and getting paid more five years after graduation, compared with students who didn’t have an internship. (Hora cites some statistics in an article this month in Fast Company, and his center has reviewed the research on internships.)
But Hora argues that internships can counterbalance, reflect, or drive larger inequities. Part of that gap in earnings, for example, might be explained by the fact that employers are increasingly using the internship as a kind of test run for future employees. In some ways, Hora told me during a recent visit in Madison, you can’t blame them. “Hiring is difficult, it takes a long time, it's expensive, and you don't always make good choices,” he said. “I get the rationale. It's just there's issues and problems with that that aren't talked about enough.”
Much of the discussion about internships centers on pay and exploitation. But which students find out about internships in the first place? What resources do you need to do one?
For starters, many internships are not widely advertised, Hora says, so you have to be something of an insider to find one. Right away, that narrows the pool.
But even well-advertised positions can be out of reach for a lot of students. “It’s very uncommon for a student to say that there is only one obstacle they’re facing in accessing an internship,” Hora says. “It's often a combination of things.” According to his research, many students work to pay for college and support families while in school, and few can quit a full-time position to land a part-time or temporary one. Many internships require transportation, and nearly 20 percent of the students who had not landed an internship in Hora’s study said the lack of a car was a barrier. And internship opportunities are often clearest for students majoring in business, engineering, nursing, or other fields with direct paths into work; for students majoring in social sciences, arts, and humanities, finding internships can be difficult.
These factors disproportionately affect first-generation students, Hora says, which means that “the whole reproduction-of-privilege thing is highly problematic.”
Within colleges themselves, Hora notes, the organization and approach to internships is starting to cause tensions. Some colleges are seeking to centralize internship efforts, but individual departments worry that trend will interfere with relationships they have with employers. And while college administrators are starting to push internship requirements, given the demand from parents and students, Hora often hears career-services counselors complain that institutions aren’t providing the resources needed to set students up with those opportunities.
Colleges and employers can start to address these issues by being more intentional about how internships are set up and supported. Internships should not be considered a one-size-fits-all solution for giving students work experience, he says. Students should have more of a role in designing internship opportunities, to address some of the barriers above.
While students should offer input on internships, colleges also need to guide students on how to engage an employer in an internship. Students are aware that an internship is an important thing to list on a resume, but if they approach it as they might approach a required course — as an obligation or mere hoop they have to jump through — they could end up squandering the experience. This is particularly true when it comes to cultivating so-called soft skills, says Hora. There is a widespread assumption that internships naturally confer soft skills, but Hora is skeptical, given how difficult it is to teach those skills. Internships need a “deliberate focus” on those attributes.
Clearly, given the limited number of internships and the challenges in landing them, students need other kinds of real-world learning and work experience. Microinternships — with shorter durations and fewer work demands — could be one way to provide opportunities to more students.
But there might be solutions in well-worn practices at colleges. In Australia, Hora says, colleges are starting to shift toward work-integrated learning, like problem-based learning courses, undergraduate research, and other techniques that colleges have been doing for decades.
“It's not just repackaging them,” he says. “It's kind of recognizing that those opportunities that are linked to authentic problems from a nonacademic professional setting, if done well, can be just as good as an internship.”