Monday, March 30, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Internships

A new correspondent writes:

Recently I've noticed an increase of reports in the popular press
proclaiming an "internship arms race" among graduating seniors in four
year colleges. "Internships," according to these reports, are becoming
a critical way to get a leg up on the competition in landing a job,
especially now with the economic crisis.  This got me to thinking if
this scenario is playing out the same or differently at the two-year

I recognize that a lot of vocational and technical programs at two
years probably have well-structured pathways to employment through
apprenticeships, etc., but what about those fields who don't, like
say, business or communications, etc?  Is there a growing demand on
career placement offices and administrators to recruit employers for
internships?  Do career placement offices at two-years even focus on
things like internships, given that, theoretically at least, their
students will be either getting a vocational degree or headed off to a
four-year? I'd be very curious as to any insights you have on how the
role of career placement in this regard is the same or different at
two years?

I'll start with the obligatory “your mileage may vary,” since that's particularly true here. Depending on the focus of the individual cc and the vagaries of local economies, a perfectly true portrait of my college may ring absurdly false at another.

That said, I've picked up a few basic points about internships, co-ops, and the like at community colleges over the last few years.

First, they rarely transfer. We have some programs that are both 'career' and 'transfer,' in the sense that they're occupationally specific but require a four-year degree to get terribly far. (Engineering and Early Childhood Education leap to mind, but there are plenty more.) In those programs, there's a perfectly valid educational reason to have an internship or co-op experience at the cc level, but the four-year receiving schools don't give credit for them. They like to keep control of the experiential part of their program, so they take our classroom credits in transfer but reject our internship credits. Some students still go ahead and do them anyway, out of a correct sense that real-world experience is a great way to figure out if a particular field is really for them. (It was a summer internship that taught me that I really didn't want to be a lawyer. Better to figure that out at 20 than at 25 or 30.) But they do so at their own risk.

Second, unpaid internships are simply not realistic for many cc students. (Locally, we refer to paid internships as co-ops, and unpaid ones as internships. Not everybody does it that way, but it has the virtue of relative clarity.) For students who need to work thirty paid hours a week just to get through, the prospect of another 15 to 30 unpaid just doesn't compute. Annoyingly, the ability to work unpaid counts as a credential, allowing those with the most advantages to garner even more.

Locally, although we do a pretty good job with the economy we have, there's been a bifurcation in the labor market: most jobs require either a whole lot of education, or virtually none. The 'skilled manufacturing'/high-trade/high-blue-collar stuff – the stuff for which cc level internships make the most sense – is largely evaporating. (Interestingly, these are also the jobs that critics of the 'education bubble' usually cite as alternatives to college. 1950 is gone, and it isn't coming back. For verification, check the stats on the gender breakdown of job losses in the current recession.) The 'workforce development' people tell me that some of the companies we used to have great relationships with have either gone abroad or gone under, and some of the ones that are still here are much smaller than they once were. And the professional level employers have their hands full dealing with college juniors and seniors.

I've heard anecdotally of some employers trying to use unpaid internships to avoid actual hiring. There's an obvious short-term logic to that, but constant turnover carries real costs of its own. When a non-trivial part of your workforce is always in the high-effort, low-payoff part of the learning curve, the effects on productivity aren't hard to predict.

I've mentioned before that the distinction between 'career' and 'transfer' programs is becoming harder to sustain. This is becoming obvious in the internship area, since if you need a four-year degree (or more) to be taken seriously, it's not clear why you'd need an internship in your sophomore year. That said, I'm very sympathetic to the idea that some sort of early exposure to the world of professional work can do a world of good; it's just not yet clear what form that exposure can take. The old idea of shadowing a skilled tradesman for no pay just doesn't get the job done the way it once did.

Wise and worldly readers – what are your thoughts on the evolution of internships? I suspect that local conditions are strongly determinative here, but getting a sense of how things are done elsewhere might spark some useful experiments.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.