The Evolution Of Interns, From Apprentices To Underemployed Millenials

Their duties range from coffee-grabbing to overtime immersion, their compensation from nil to generous, and their treatment from abusive to excellent. They are the interns of the 21st century, and they are more common by the year.

To some, internships may seem like a millennial phenomenon, but in truth the concept of serving and training to earn a job dates back to apprenticeships in the 11th and 12th century.Then, young learners worked under a master to learn the skills of the trade, and would do so contractually to join a guild afterwards.

Since that time, as the workforce and education have evolved, so too has the concept of apprenticeship. Here’s a brief timeline:

  • 11th century: Birth of the apprenticeship: the guild system begins
  • 16th century: Statute of Artificers was passed, making apprenticeships a requirement for entering a trade
  • 20th century: Industrial Revolution transitioned trades into professional workplaces, with higher education prioritized. First academic internship program created in 1906
  • 1980s: College co-op programs begin to transition into modern day internships, however only 3 percent of college students completed internships before entering the job market
  • 1999: Universities providing internships jump from 200 to over 1,000

Today, most universities in America and abroad offer academic credit for internships, and nearly half (47 percent) of all companies offer them, and as many as 97 percent of large employers plan to. Unlike apprenticeships of yesteryear, however, employers are not obligated to hire or even compensate interns, nor are interns obligated to take the job if it’s offered.

ahasidebarIt is estimated that every year, there are anywhere between 500,000 to two million interns working. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know for sure, because the U.S. Labor Department and the Census Bureau don’t account for or regulate internships.

For students, internships — especially paid ones — are promoted as an important foot-in-the door step toward employment, considering:

  • 68.9 percent of college seniors have done at least one internship
  • Students with paid internships are three times more likely to have job offers than students with unpaid internships
  • Students with three or more internships are twice as likely to have a job offer than students with just one internship

But even so, there are some noted downsides:

  • Only a recorded 48.3 percent of internships were paid in 2014 (lack of intern reporting likely means this number is lower)
  • As of April 15th, only 16.6 percent of seniors had received a job offer

In an ideal world, internships are equally beneficial for all parties involved: for employers, because it allows them to recruit, for interns because it provides valuable job experience, and universities for being able to facilitate their graduates’ career aspirations.

The controversy

Unfortunately, some internships have deviated from legal requirements, both triggered by and contributing to economic recession.

Notable has been the rise of unpaid internships. Legal guidelines set under the Fair Labor Act in 2010 for unpaid internships are fairly strict, requiring, among other things, that:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded

Even so, some employers have been observed (and subsequently sued for) using internships not to recruit or train, but to benefit from a rotation of unpaid labour without hiring.

ahasidebarIt is estimated that employers of America make about $2 billion in profit off of unpaid internships.

Unpaid internships may also provide an unfair advantage to those of higher socioeconomic status, since others are not able to afford to work for free.

As employers favor candidates with the most internships under their belt, this can mean years of poorly compensated work both during and after college.

For students and graduates, the job market is more competitive than ever. Because of this, young people are often more than willing to take internships regardless of pay, and work long hours to prove themselves worthy.

The takeaway

For many, it depends on their field of work, and the compensation they receive, just how valuable their internships will be in the long run.

ahasidebarA recent survey found that those with unpaid internships were only slightly more likely to secure employment than those with no intern experience, and were more likely to take lower-paying jobs than those with paid internships.

This has to do with some industries’ high competitiveness and slow growth — for example, in creative fields like fashion and media, there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around.

All of this has to do with how work and education have evolved over time. Though more and more young people are college educated, it may no longer be enough to secure employment, especially when there are gaps in supply and demand of skills and available jobs.

Though the economy may be improving, there is no indication that the landscape of internships is changing quite yet — though recent lawsuits over intern exploitation may change this tune, as more businesses are pressured to pay interns.

But this pressure has also stopped some companies from offering internships, leaving an equally convoluted path toward opportunity for ambitious young people.

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Jennifer Markert