It’s a Catch-22:
You need experience to get experience.
Although the US unemployment rate has dropped to 7.9% as of September 2020, most employers still favor applicants that have a relevant work history under their belt, be it from volunteer work, actual job experience, or internships.
But—not all internships are created equal.
While some programs could make a tangible impact on your hireability chances, others–that don’t have a structured intern policy and/or make interns do mostly menial work–might leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Here at LiveCareer, we’ve rolled up our sleeves to find out just how helpful internships are for aspiring young adults looking to break into the workforce. Tapping into the proverbial wisdom of the crowds, we polled 1,000 Americans on their internship experiences and stumbled upon more than one hidden gem.
Paid Internships Aren’t Few and Far Between
For a while, a vast majority of college-aged Americans couldn’t afford to take on a full-time unpaid internship without pushing their debt load even further upon graduation.
But—things have changed.
According to our findings, paid internship programs are becoming the norm. In fact, 77% of the young adults report completing a paid internship vs. an unpaid one. That goes hand in hand with The Wall Street Journal’s recent report, which states that today’s tight US labor market effectively squeezes out unpaid internships.
How much do internships pay monthly? Below is a breakdown of the surveyed US interns’ responses:
- Less than 1,300$ – 31%
- 1,301$ to 2,000$ – 31%
- 2,001$ to 2,700$ – 24%
- 2,701$ to 3,400$ – 10%
- 3,401$ to 4,100$ – 3%
- More than 4,101$ – 2%
On top of that, we wanted to see how long the respondents’ internships lasted and if there’s a correlation between internship duration and monthly remuneration. Below are the results, with MW standing for mode wage:
- One month (MW: less than 1,300$) – 10%
- Two months (MW: 1,301$ to 2,000$) – 23%
- Three months (MW: 1,301$ to 2,000$) – 33%
- Four months (MW: 2,001$ to 2,700$) – 13%
- Five months (MW: 2,701$ to 3,400$) – 5%
- Six months (MW: less than 1,300$) – 9%
- Seven months or more (MW: less than 1,300$) – 7%
Lastly, we asked the Americans how many internships they’d undertaken to see how many is enough to get your foot in the door of any industry:
- One internship – 38%
- Two internships – 47%
- Three internships – 11%
- Four internships or more – 3%
Interestingly, the respondents who report taking up two or more internships generally have a higher income at a later stage in their careers. Namely, over half of the survey takers that currently make between $50,000 and $100,000+ completed two or more internships vs. just one (although we couldn’t corroborate salary claims due to survey limitations.)
An exception to it is the education industry. Specifically, most of the young adults (57%) who interned at educational institutions typically aim to complete one internship rather than two or more.
The Driving Force Behind Completing Internship Programs
At this point, we wanted to deep-dive into the young professionals’ motivations behind undertaking an internship.
Now—it turns out that 54% of the interns decided to partake in an internship because it was a school requirement. For the remaining 46%, it was their own decision to gain professional experience.
What stood out to us the most was that the working professionals with a six-figure income today seemed more likely to take up internships because they wanted to, not because they had to. In fact, 62% of our respondents that now make $100,000 and more state that they undertook an internship of their own will.
We wouldn’t go as far as saying that young professionals end up being more financially successful if they decide to take up an internship on their own rather than doing it for college credit. That said, it could potentially be indicative of how self-motivation and a success-driven mentality can lead to better financial prospects further down the road.
Best Places to Find Internship Opportunities
Next up, we asked the respondents where they found their most recent internship.
Below are the results:
- Google – 36%
- Networking – 18%
- Career services office – 12%
- LinkedIn – 8%
- Through outreach to potential employers – 8%
- Career fairs – 7%
- Job boards – 5%
As evident from the data, Americans find internship programs mostly through Google, followed by networking and career services offices.
This could be a signal for HR professionals to channel their recruiting and financial resources into online advertising, rather than spend time and effort on job boards and career fairs that don’t seem to yield fruitful results.
Expectations vs. Reality
When you land your first internship, you’ll likely want to slap an “S” on your chest.
After all, it takes some legwork to research viable internship opportunities, put together a junior resume, and craft an engaging cover letter that would make the hiring manager jump on a Zoom call.
But—while young professionals might think they are about to engage in profoundly meaningful work contributing to ongoing projects and brainstorming ideas with the team that could potentially take the company to new heights, the reality might not be as glamorous.
In fact, as little as 7% of the surveyed interns performed meaningful work throughout their entire internship program, according to our findings. The remaining 93% of the Americans were involved in:
- Mostly menial work – 16%
- Mostly menial work with some meaningful tasks here and there – 29%
- A mixture of both – 38%
- Mostly meaningful work with menial tasks on a few occasions – 11%
Answering phones, shredding documents, fetching the boss’ dry cleaning, or making Starbucks runs is what most interns will inevitably be tasked with at some point during their tenure.
Why is that the case?
Perhaps it’s because most companies don’t have a robust internship structure in place with a defined curriculum, as reported by a whopping 68% of the survey takers, to guide young adults through the program.
Here’s what one of the respondents had to say about it:
The worst part was that they didn’t have any tasks for me. When this became evident, they called me out in a meeting, asking what I was doing all day.
So—it might be a good wake-up call for businesses to revise their internship programs and come up with a clear-cut framework that outlines key learning objectives, career-related skills to be obtained, challenging tasks to be completed, and generally the internship takeaway.
After all, happy interns won’t only make for happy future employees, but you’ll also be more poised to enhance your brand image as well as empower young workers to make a tangible contribution to your bottom line.
The Effect of Internships on Employability
Despite the rather dispiriting findings mentioned earlier, it isn’t all dark and dismal when it comes to young adults’ hireability chances upon internship completion.
In line with other numerous studies that revolve around the correlation between internships and subsequent employment, our respondents are certain: internships can put turbo thrusters on an entry-level resume.
In fact, 78% of the respondents feel they gained useful professional experience that improved their employability chances. One person explains:
I enjoyed seeing things from the inside. It gave me a good perspective on how things work in a professional, real-life environment.
Another 79% report their internship led to their first job in the chosen career path, with 73% of the interns going on to work for the company in a full-time capacity. That’s quite in line with NACE’s 2018 study, which discovered that interns’ job offer rate stands at 59%.
Between “making coffee runs” and “fetching mail,” it seems unlikely that interns can rake up vital career-related skills necessary to secure full-time employment.
One explanation for it could be that most internships provide young people with an opportunity to beef up their resumes with relevant work experience, which is something employers place great value on. On top of that, a full 74% of the US interns state the internship helped them pick up valuable hard skills (e.g., MS Excel, SEO) essential for their chosen career path, despite being often tasked with menial work.
Another 70% of the interviewees reported the internship had a positive impact on their soft skills (e.g., communication, decision making, and problem-solving) and, ultimately, career crystallization.
So—what’s the conclusion?
Although most internships task interns with relatively menial work, they generally provide young adults with a chance to gain a blend of marketable hard and soft skills, or–in the worst-case scenario–just help interns supercharge their resumes with relevant work experience. And while the latter might be morally objectionable, the data suggests it’s still a viable option to get one’s foot in the door.
The Dynamics Between Interns and Full-Timers
Predictably, there are occasional horror stories that surround internship programs, as one of the respondents explains:
A few times, I felt like people were taking advantage of me because they knew I’d be gone in a few months.
But—generally, most workplaces take kindly to young workers looking to break into the workforce. In fact, a full 78% of the surveyed interns felt they were treated with respect by their supervisors and coworkers.
Another 69% said their supervisors spent enough time and effort to help them make the most of their internship.
To tip the scales in your favor, and get the max ROI on your internship, go the extra mile to support your supervisor and your colleagues in their day-to-day activities and offer your input whenever possible. By giving your best effort when delivering on mini-missions, you’ll establish your reputation as a reliable employee, and ultimately, get to work on more challenging projects you can later showcase on a resume.
Viable Internship Alternatives Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic
As the coronavirus rages on, a vast majority of businesses today have switched to telecommuting in an attempt to sustain during today’s challenging times.
Internships have become yet another casualty of the coronavirus, with hundreds of businesses canceling their internship programs and rescinding job offers, as The New York Times reports. That’s why we also wanted to ask the respondents for viable internship alternatives to help young adults ease the transition into the workforce amidst the crisis.
Below are three front runners:
- Learning new skills via online learning platforms – 73%
- Freelancing – 70%
- Remote internships – 63%
If you’re looking to jumpstart your career in the middle of a pandemic, you could pick up a handful of hard skills (you could later put on a resume) on online learning platforms such as Skillshare, LinkedIn Learning, or Coursera.
Alternatively, young adults can take up freelance work and tap into the power of online marketplaces like Fiverr or Upwork to get real-life experience and generally build a portfolio.
Lastly, as 63% of the respondents suggested, college-aged Americans could take advantage of remote internships. While you’ll likely lose out on the company culture, you’ll still be able to grow your skillset and gain sought-after work experience.
We surveyed 1,010 respondents online via a bespoke polling tool that have undertaken an internship in the past five years. All respondents included in the study passed an attention-check question. The study was created through several steps of research, crowdsourcing, and surveying.
The data we are presenting rely on self-reports from respondents. Each person who took our survey read and responded to each question without any research administration or interference. There are many potential issues with self-reported data like selective memory, telescoping, attribution, or exaggeration.
Some questions and responses have been rephrased or condensed for clarity and ease of understanding for readers. In some cases, the percentages presented may not add up to 100 percent; depending on the case, this is either due to rounding or due to responses of “neither/uncertain/unknown” not being presented.
- Jung, J. & Lee, S. (2017). Impact of internship on job performance among university graduates in South Korea. International Journal of Chinese
- Education, 5(2), 250-284. 46 Knouse, S. B., Tanner, J. R., & Harris, E. W. (1999). The relation of college internships, college performance, and subsequent job opportunity.
- 21(3), 229-240. 48 Nunley, J. M., Pugh, A., Romero, N., & Seals Jr, R. A. (2016). College major, internship experience, and employment opportunities.
ABOUT JEFF ALTMAN, THE BIG GAME HUNTER
Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter is a coach who worked as a recruiter for what seems like one hundred years. His work involves career coaching, all as well as executive job search coaching, job coaching, and interview coaching. He is the host of “No BS Job Search Advice Radio,” the #1 podcast in iTunes for job search with more than 1900 episodes, and is a member of The Forbes Coaches Council.
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