Internships, the temporary and often unpaid entry-level positions companies offer college students and recent graduates, are an increasingly important tool for young workers to gain job experience and make professional contacts. By definition internships are intended to be learning opportunities in some career path, rather than menial or dead-end jobs, even if the tasks assigned to interns aren't always the most challenging. Some internships actually lead to college credit.
Although there are no definitive statistics collected on internships, there is some evidence that the use of internships grew during the 1990s. This trend likely stemmed in part from the tight labor market in the latter half of the 1990s. Traditionally popular in certain professional career tracks, such as MBA and law programs, internships are now common in a diverse range of fields.
A widely cited annual survey published by the Internet career guidance site VaultReports.com reported in 1999 that over 80 percent of all college seniors completed at least one internship. According to Samer Hamadeh, one of the authors of the Vault Reports, as recently as the mid-1980s only 3 percent of college students took part in an internship. With approximately 2.5 million U.S. college seniors each year as of the mid-1990s, the 80 percent estimate translates into some 2 million internships. Moreover, the survey found, many undergraduates don't stop at just one internship. Indeed, a full two-thirds of the same college seniors had undertaken two or more internships—and this doesn't even begin to account for the internships done by graduate students. Princeton Review's The Internship Bible boasts 100,000 internship directory listings; Peterson's Internships lists some 50,000 positions nationally.
Internships can confer three main benefits to workers. First, they provide relatively low-risk opportunities to sample different occupations and work environments. Second, they help build up workers' skills and can thereby make them more attractive candidates for future employment. In a general sense, an internship can help the worker learn effective work habits and practices, such as how to manage time, get along with other people, and use standard business tools like fax machines, electronic mail for business correspondence, and so forth. In a more focused sense, internships can also teach workers occupation-specific skills. The third primary benefit of internships is for developing professional contacts. The simple fact that a person has worked for a company in the past is, assuming there were no major problems, often a compelling reason for that person to be rehired into a permanent position. More importantly, beyond the relationship the worker establishes with a particular company during an internship, he or she may also form beneficial relationships with managers or coworkers who may one day be in a position to recommend, refer, or even hire the former intern at another company.
Internships can also serve corporate interests. An obvious, albeit somewhat misleading, example would be the unpaid internship, which allows a company to obtain full-time labor, at least temporarily, at little or no cost. While this perhaps fuels some internship programs, some companies actively eschew unpaid internships, believing that they fail to motivate young workers and send the wrong messages about the company's values. Probably the most important benefit of internship programs to companies comes in providing them with a regular supply of potential new workers. Arguably, many college interns may be more aggressive and motivated employees by virtue of their choosing an internship while in school rather than taking low-skill jobs or not working at all. But more than anything, an internship program provides a means for companies to try out entry- or mid-level employees before establishing a more permanent relationship with them.
If the management is pleased with the intern's performance, rehiring him or her as a regular employee can also be considerably cheaper and easier than bringing in someone new. Some research further suggests that companies with various kinds of youth-worker programs, including internships and local school initiatives, tend to have significantly lower employee turnover.
De Lisser, Eleena. "School-Business Partnerships Help Retain Workers." Wall Street Journal, 24 November 1998.
Filipczak, Bob. "The New Interns." Training, April 1998.
"Internships." New York: Vault Reports, Inc., 1999. Available from www.vaultreports.com .
Messmer, Max. "Establishing a Successful Internship Program." Business Credit, April 1999.
Oldman, Mark, and Samer Hamadeh. The Internship Bible. New York: Princeton Review, 1999.
Peterson's Internships. 19th ed. Princeton, NJ: Peterson's Guides, 1999.
Wong, Alex. "Climbing the Ladder of Success Often Begins with Internships." Record (Hackensack, NJ), 17 July 1998.