Sunday, June 09, 2013


The Internship Condundrum

(That sounds like a spy novel, doesn’t it?)

From listening to employers, you’d think that community colleges would be hotbeds of internships.  Since employers frequently want some sort of work experience, and community colleges have been tasked with a focus on workforce development, it would seem to make sense that community colleges would be epicenters for internships.

But it isn’t that simple.

I’m the first to agree that internships can provide real value for students.  I had one during the summer between my junior and senior years of college, when I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, and when I discovered that I didn’t.  At age twenty, that was valuable information to have, and I don’t know how else I would have discovered it.  Done right, internships can provide three-dimensional views of the reality of workplaces, and can help students decide whether a given setting makes sense for them.  And it’s not at all unusual for employers to treat internships as extended auditions, hiring the interns who make the best impressions.  That makes obvious sense, and provides an incentive on both sides for taking the opportunity seriously.

Having said that, though, the issues from an institutional perspective are twofold.

First, most internships are unpaid.  (I was lucky; mine came with a stipend.)  For many community college students, that’s a deal-breaker.  They’re working their way through school, and they can’t afford to forego paid employment to work someplace else for free.  It’s easy to argue that a short-term sacrifice is worth the long-term gain, but that argument is easier to make when your basic needs are met.  When the short-term sacrifice involves the basic needs, it’s a tough sell.  You can’t eat prestige, and your kids certainly can’t.

Unfortunately, that can put many community college students at a competitive disadvantage in the subsequent job search, since they’ll be competing with people who could afford to work for free in a career-relevant field.  

Second, very few four-year colleges take internship credits in transfer.  They generally prefer that internships be done no earlier than the junior year.  I’ve never actually heard a rationale for that.  If I had to guess, I suppose they’d say something about wanting to send out people who are well-prepared.  But I think that gives short shrift to the “discovery” function of internships -- better to find out earlier than later if a field just isn’t for you -- and it actively discourages community colleges from competing with them.  (From their perspective, that may be a feature, rather than a bug.)  In a four-year context, you can at least offer a student academic credit, even if you can’t offer pay.  (Put differently, you can charge them for working.)  For a student starting out at a community college and intending to transfer, being told that the internship credits they worked for and paid for won’t transfer is a powerful disincentive.  

To my mind, this obstacle doesn’t have to exist.  Four-year colleges could agree to accept up to x internship credits in transfer if they wanted to.  That wouldn’t get around the issue of pay, but at least it would put community college internships on a level playing field.  Folks with leverage in this area could make it happen if they chose to.  Hint, hint.

In some programs, the transfer issue isn’t as important.  When a two-year degree is enough to get started in the field, then what the transfer school will accept doesn’t matter much.  But the issue of pay looms large for many students.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a community college find an elegant way around these obstacles?  I think we play a difficult hand well, but if there’s a better way, I’d love to hear it.

Here's another problem with unpaid internships: many interns, since they're working for free, do not take the assignment seriously and are, in the words of an associate who has tried to use interns effectively, "more trouble than they're worth." Larger employers will take on a group, knowing that only a few will turn out to add value in any way. And this is particularly true for interns at the younger end of the college years. You would think that 2-year students, who are closer to the end of their formal education, would be more committed; and indeed, in some programs there is already an aspect of internship (clinicals for nursing students, for example).

I work for an educational research consortium (, and one of our core areas of focus is the development of virtual internships. While a virtual environment cannot capture all the elements of in-person work, we've found that high school and first-year college students can both learn content knowledge and get a realistic internship experience at a much earlier stage and for far less cost (in all senses of that word) than with a more traditional internship. For example, in our engineering VIs, students learn engineering-specific knowledge and skills, but they also learn to think like engineers while developing general professional skills, such as communication, collaboration, non-routine problem solving, etc. This gives students a sense of what engineers do and how they do it, and they learn in the context of a (simulated) professional environment. Our research has shown that this approach both improves learning outcomes and increases students' motivation to continue to a degree. Because VIs can be integrated into classes, there is no additional investment that students must make, as with an unpaid internship, and the virtual nature of the simulations means that students can participate from anywhere with internet access.
My problem with internships is precisely that they tend to be unpaid. There's a lot of research suggesting that unpaid internships are worth a lot less as educational experiences to the students, and worth a lot less as productive workers to the employers, than paid a sense, we get what the firm is willing to pay for...
Since I completed 3 unpaid internships between ugrad and grad school, I feel very differently about unpaid vs paid. I was in the human services field and it goes very much against the grain to be paid for those internships. They were also credit bearing internships. I think that's the key. If you are going to work for free, there should be credit attached. And if there is credit attached, you can be graded on performance which "should" encourage said performance.

I am also PT faculty who supervise seniors completing the same type of internship that I did many moons ago. Since you work essentially FT for 13 weeks, money can be a hardship. However, every semester 30 students sign up to do just that. They know going in that this is the priority. Some of these students are your traditional college age/live at home/pt job but some are single parents, some are married, some are caring for aging parents. In the past 4 years, we haven't had anybody have to drop out. It wasn't easy but it is doable. We even managed to handle one student going into labor about a month and a half early.

The advantage to our internships is that students actually get to do really work, not copying and filing grunt work. There is some of that but the learning agreements with the placements require them to get hands on opportunities in the field. This includes group counseling, IEP's, grant work, etc.

While I can't really talk about community colleges, I can talk a bit about why our department seeks to have students complete their (credit-bearing) internship later in their college career. For us, the internship does fulfill a career building function; I often say in my dog-and-pony shows that it's better to find out that you don't want to go to law school before you start writing big checks or taking out big loans. Looking at it from a career perspective, later internships can 1) lead to job offers that students could reasonably take (i.e. we'd like to hire you when you have a degree - if you're a graduating senior, no problem. Problem if you have 2 or 3 more years left). In addition, even if you don't get an offer, you will have a reference who can talk about your "real world" work when you apply for other jobs - something that may be more difficult as time goes on (people move to new jobs, your experience is less fresh in their mind, etc.).

But really for us, the career building aspect is secondary; the key curricular goal that internships fulfill is knowledge integration and application. As such, we require students to keep a journal about their experience and then write a paper at the end that ties in their experience with what they have learned in the classroom. You've taken classes on state and local politics and policy-making, how does your experience working for our local government relate this knowledge? To the extent students haven't had much classroom experience, there's not much to integrate and apply.

We're thinking about how we can meet these curricular goals with our non-traditional students, as we recognize that this population will have a more difficult time fulfilling the time requirements of our internship. But even for these students, we'll ask them to complete this experiential learning experience later in their undergraduate career, so that it still serves the integrative function.
here's the same comment I left for Thomas Friedman, based on his OpEd the NYT this week:
I'm so pleased to see other comments pointing out that in most cases, unpaid internships are illegal, and that these employers are breaking the law. There are exceptions, of course, but the key thing is: Is the employer gaining financially from the work of an unpaid intern? Is the intern replacing someone who had been paid to do the job before?

I run a paid internship program from New Mexico Highlands University in northern, NM. My students cannot afford unpaid internships (like many students elsewhere), and if they were not being paid to use their media arts skills, such as programming, web development, video & multimedia production, they would instead be taking minimum wage service jobs.

Our internship program is designed to serve the NM cultural industry, putting our students to work in museums, libraries, historic sites and other cultural organizations. Our original program evolved in to the AmeriCorps Cultural Technology program, a unique program that places our graduates in full year paid internships with support and trained on-site mentors. The museums bring half the match, and in turn, get a young, technologically skilled, enthusiastic intern for a year. Their investment in the student gives the student confidence in their value- as opposed to feeling undervalued after spending 4-5 years earning a degree (often the first in their family).
Sounds like you're wishing for something akin to a a co-op program or an European-style apprenticeship.
I agree with what Shannon posted. I would also like to add that sending unprepared interns out into an agency can harm the working relationship with that organization. I am the history internship coordinator at my university, where we offer credits bearing internships, and we have had agencies tell us that they do not want interns from our institution, because they have had such bad experiences. This is because the previous coordinator did not discriminate when it came to upper division students versus lower division students. When I took over, I sat down with our faculty and we agreed that upper division students are generally much better prepared. It will take time to repair the relationships we have with some of these agencies, but making this change to our internship policy has helped. There aren't many internship opportunities in our city, so we really have to make sure those relationships remain healthy, lest none of our students have internship opportunities.
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