Challenging the Assumptions that Support Internships as a Pathway to Employment

12 Nov 2018

The expansion of internships constitutes a major shift in the transformation of work, particularly as it affects young people. Internships generally refer to a period of time when an individual attends a workplace and participates in its day to day functions, either as a mandatory or optional component of an education course, or where the arrangement is by a participant or host organization on the ‘open market’.

For convenience, I will refer here to all such arrangements as internships. However, the focus is on participation that is designed to enhance career or professional work, either during or following a degree program.

Internships may offer key pathways into the labour market. Conversely, a lack of access to internships may close off such opportunities.

At face value, the link between access to internships and employability seem plausible. Yet this link is based on two key and related assumptions. The first assumption is that it is possible, merely by doing an internship, to acquire a competitive advantage in the labour market over job-seeking peers who do not participate. This can only be logically true if participation is not universal and there are no effective substitutes.

The second assumption is that when participation is not universal, internships do in fact improve employability and lead to better employment outcomes. Here, it is important to distinguish between employability and employment. Employability means the capacities, skills and knowledge acquired by interns whereas employment is about securing a job. You can be employable but unemployed.

The problem with the first assumption, which is that internships provide a competitive advantage, is that as the practice becomes a central dimension of tertiary study, previous differentiation benefits are potentially erased. Studies have strongly suggested that internships are increasingly ubiquitous in many parts of the world, including in Australia, the UK, Canada and Europe.

In an environment where the majority of young people participate in internships, young people may find it more difficult to distinguish themselves from their peers. To do this, they may seek multiple internships, for longer periods of time, or in higher status or internationally recognised organisations. They may also face significant pressures and anxiety about needing to stand out in the job market.

In relation to the second assumption, which is that internships improve employability and employment outcomes, supporters of internships often rely on surveys that demonstrate student satisfaction with their experiences is generally positive. Students often perceive that internships are a ‘braggable investment’; an essential strategy for gaining a competitive edge; and an experience that improves critical and analytical thinking.

An Australian prevalence study reported that 80% of university students agreed or strongly agreed that their unpaid work based learning experience had helped them develop new skills.

However, outcomes according to more objective employment statistics is mixed. Whether internships lead to actual jobs appears to depend on the quality of mentoring; the nature of the tasks undertaken; the degree to which exploitative practices such as unreasonable workloads occur; and the disciplinary field of the participant.

In Australia, LSAY data suggests a positive relationship between combined short-term structured workplace learning and classroom based VET. In Europe, 30% of traineeships have been found to be inferior and are significantly less likely to result in employment. Paid internships result in better outcomes than unpaid experiences.

Open market internships attract the greatest quality concerns, with reports of menial tasks that bear no relation to the jobs interns are ultimately seeking to gain. However, it cannot be assumed that simply because an internship involves an educational provider such as a university, good quality outcomes will result.

The significant expansion of internships in various forms has raised concerns about equity of access. Patterns of class advantage and disadvantage are associated with wealthier families who can support their children to participate in high-cost cities; have strong existing networks in desirable, high-status organisations; and exhibit confidence in navigating opaque recruitment practices effectively. This has the effect of intensifying the mechanisms of socio-economic reproduction already evident in the education system.

The problem of equity of access is often asserted in relation to privately organized or advertised internships. Yet it can also apply to work experience programs offered through universities. This is because students from low socio-economic backgrounds may struggle to afford the costs of travel and accommodation, especially if the host employer is located far from where they live.

The available evidence suggests only tenuous support for the two assumptions supporting internships as a pathway to employment. As the practice becomes more ubiquitous, even individuals with extensive workplace exposure are less likely to stand out from their peers. As far as we know, rising participation in internships does not create jobs, so graduates must compete for a limited and possibly shrinking number of career positions.

Most interns enjoy their experiences. But there is increasing evidence of exploitation, unequal access, and challenges in juggling multiple commitments. If internships have become a compulsory rite of passage to paid employment we at least need to know if the investment of individuals and institutions is a worthwhile one. It is crucial therefore to more closely interrogate assumptions about the relationship between internships, employability and employment, and the costs and benefits of participation.