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Internships in demand, but not always easy for students to undertake

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
    • Financial pressures and coursework demands make it difficult for some students to participate in internships, even when they are interested in doing so
    • Dissatisfaction arises when students are expected to participate in internships despite their school not helping them adequately to find a placement
    • Certain fields, and female students, more likely to have internships that are unpaid
    • The best internships are beneficial for the student and employer, and recognise that schoolwork must be the priority and that students may have family obligations and other commitments

What is stopping a significant proportion of students from undertaking internships, even as the demand for candidates with work experience is rising among employers? Perhaps ironically, a significant barrier is work. Some students are too busy working – at paid jobs – as well as fulfilling coursework that an internship is simply too much to take on.

A new report from the University of Wisconsin at Madison – based on more than 1,200 interviews and survey responses from students enrolled at three unnamed American colleges – looked at internship participation, structural features of internship programmes, and student perspectives about internships and participating in them. The study thus relies on findings from American students but its observations can nevertheless be broadly instructive for global educators.

The study’s key findings include:

  • Students are more likely to participate in an internship if it is paid;
  • Internships were more limited for colleges based in small towns and rural areas;
  • Many students felt that they were pressured to participate in internships by their school even as the school did not adequately help them find a placement.

And importantly, students feeling financial pressure felt that they had to work in one or two paid jobs not linked to internships to make enough money to live and study. Among the 509 students who had not done an internship but who had expressed interest in doing one, these are the top reasons cited for not being able to:

  • “Needed to work at job”: 58%
  • “Course load at school was too heavy”: 52%
  • “Lack of internships opportunities in my field”: 42%
  • “Insufficient pay offered”: 27%
  • “Lack of transportation”: 15%
  • “Lack of childcare”: 5%

One interviewed student said,

“Honestly, my biggest struggle is most of them are unpaid. And I am 26, I am getting married in like a year… I am trying to do adult things and not getting paid for several months is just not something I really think I can afford to do right now.”

Unpaid internships

Earlier this spring, in Quebec, Canada, thousands of students went on strike to protest unpaid internships, and a key area of dissatisfaction was that female students in certain fields tend to be more likely to be offered unpaid internships than male students.

Commenting on the trend to Canadian broadcaster CBC, Alexandre Frenette, an associate director at the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, said,

“I’ve seen consistent trends of gender bias in terms of the intern economy. Certain fields … like architecture tend to pay their interns and they tend to be mostly men, versus other fields like arts education [that] tend to be mostly women, and those are unpaid internships.”

He noted that nursing, social work, or education remain associated with “women’s work” and is thus often “devalued as something that is done out of caring, out of a labour of love.”

Increasingly, students are speaking out about the fact that unpaid internships can be a required component of a programme and can stretch over months. For many students, it’s too much to balance their academic studies, internships, and other work they may have to take on.

Best practices and best outcomes

In a paper presented at the ASEE Annual Conference and Exhibition, Dr Sudarsan Rangan and Dr Malini Natarajarathinam of Texas A&M University explain that the best internships are structured as follows:

“An effective internship experience is mutually beneficial to both the intern and the business. The student is exposed to best practices, effective management and an understanding of the skill sets and the application required to successfully transition into a productive contributor. The business benefits by providing structure and guidelines to the student which helps them understand the opportunities within the organisation and the industry, and these businesses often end as the first choice for these trained contributors.”

Among their guidelines for well-run internships, the professors emphasise that employers should “Pay [interns] well, housing or relocation allowance, even a small signing bonus. The supervisor should understand that school comes first, and be mindful of their family and school commitments.”

The University of Wisconsin study found in in its focus group interviews that, “For the students who had participated in internships the most cited outcome of an internship was ‘real-world’ or ‘hands-on’ experience. Students discussed their internships’ experiential value in terms of gaining experience in an authentic workplace setting with people engaged in the daily work of a profession, which was seen as distinct from yet complementary to their classroom experiences. Another outcome was the opportunity to explore the field, where students felt that they could use internships to ‘test out different avenues of what you might want to go into.’”

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