In today’s hyper competitive job market, internships are becoming a must-have on almost every job applicant’s CV. But when should a worker be paid for an internship, and is the rise of unpaid internships simply broadening the gap between those who can afford to work for free and those who can’t? We explore these and other issues in this Internships Investigated series.
Government and universities alike are pushing to make graduates more employable and internships are often presented as the solution to this. There is a lot of research that shows the virtues of participating in internships but not a lot on whether it actually leads to securing employment.
The concept of internships itself is a slippery one. The term internship covers a wide range of experiences from programs to introduce the long-term unemployed to working, to white collar internships for recent university graduates.
Internships designed to get jobs for the unemployed are the focus in Australia’s current election campaign. A key example is the Coalition proposed Youth Jobs PaTH (Prepare, Trial, Hire) program for youth on income support.
Like earlier iterations of work-for-the-dole programs this type of internship forces engagement with work, and has been criticised for being too narrow. Australian research shows that these types of programs restrict young people from searching for jobs as they try to meet the program requirements.
More typically, internships are often required as part of an academic qualification or in attempts to secure employment after graduation. Historically, before the shift of qualifications to universities, some areas of study, such as teaching, pharmacy and nursing, operated apprenticeships with on-the-job training as the accepted method of learning. In these disciplines and courses, learning occurred in the workplace under the supervision of qualified and experienced practitioners.
Within universities, internships are part of a suite of measures designed to better integrate formal education and work. Under this model, internships are aligned with a drive for more experiential learning.
Whether or not participants in these university internships get jobs varies depending on what they are studying. For example a Canadian study found that arts, humanities and social science university graduates who participated in these types of internships, experienced less likelihood of securing a relevant full-time job. But this type of analysis generally overlooks the impact of labour market issues, like the supply of graduate jobs.
Another small study of Australian urban planning students found that, in addition to participating in internships as a mandatory part of their degree, many students also resorted to periods of unpaid work in an effort to improve their employment prospects.
In general, research supports the assertion that internships help graduates obtain employment, but most of this research is based on surveys of studentor employer perceptions, or both, not on employment statistics.
Perception surveys ask people what they think about something. For example, do you think an internship will be useful in the search for a job? Most people will answer yes. Data from these types of studies are not objective and have no link to outcomes. Thinking an internship is valuable will not get you a job.
Employment data is a more reliable indicator. However, it is difficult to isolate the impact of internships on employment outcomes. For example, studies (and students) tend to overlook the contribution of paid part-time work, such as in hospitality and retail, to graduate employability.
The value of an internship will most likely vary across disciplines or across educational institutions. In our search of the literature, only one study investigated the effect of internships on graduate unemployment, using actual employment data.
The study did not separate findings by discipline, but it did compare graduate unemployment outcomes across degree programs with and without internships in Portugal. Overall, the study showed that students undertaking courses with internships were likely to have lower unemployment than those who did not undertake internships.
Research shows that having a number of shorter internships embedded into a degree results in better employment outcomes than one long internship towards the end of study.
So while the rhetoric presents internships as overwhelmingly beneficial as a pathway to employment, we’re yet to see conclusive research evidence of this.
You can read more stories from Internships Investigated here.
Authors: Robin Price, Senior Lecturer in Employment Relations and HRM, Queensland University of Technology