The Rise of the Millennial Intern

By Emilie Munson

Highly-educated. Self-motivated. Hard-working. Unpaid.

These adjectives describe a growing proportion of the current national work force: the undergraduate intern.

The US Department of Labor defines an internship as “a formal program providing practical learning experience for beginners in an occupation or profession that lasts a limited amount of time.”

According to Neil Howe, author of several books of American generational trends including Millennials Rising, prior to the 1990s formal internships were rare. Yet, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reports that from 1980s to mid-2000s, the percent of college graduates participating in at least one internship rose from 10 percent to 80 percent.

In 2013, NACE reported that only 63 percent of graduating students who had held paid internships received a job offer by graduation. As for unpaid internships, students who have them are today hardly more likely to get a job offer (37 percent) than those who have no internship at all (35 percent).

Director of the Center for Careers and Internships Peggy Burns cautions that NACE statistics rarely reflect smaller, less formal internships that students at the College are more likely to participate in. The percentage of students participating in internships, therefore, is likely to be even higher.

So what has precipitated this increased participation in internships, especially considering scanty statistical evidence that they lead to jobs? The limited journalism on this subject identifies several factors, including market forces and, as Howe describes them, the “relentlessly optimistic” millennials themselves.

As internship season comes to a  close at the College, the Campus investigates how the rising trend of internships has affected students here.


Trends at the College

In 2014, the CCI estimated that 600 students, or 24 percent of the student body, interned that year. Burns estimated that about 70 percent of students had least one internship before graduation while 40 to 50 percent had two or more. This places students at the College above the NACE average in terms of rate of participation in internships.

According to applications for CCI summer internship funding, the number of students participating in unpaid internships has remained relatively constant in the last five years, averaging at around 265 students or around 11 percent of the student body.

Burns says that students at the College have traditionally interned in the finance, government, public policy and publishing industries. Now, however, she says students are increasingly expanding into more industries, including non-profit work, technology and the environment. Applications for summer internship funding in 2015 indicate that students are participating in unpaid internships most commonly in the fields of science, healthcare and the arts.

“Where I particularly see the trend increasing is in those industries that are not the usual suspects,” Burns said. “The number of opportunities available and certainly the types of internships that students are interested in pursuing are really varied now.”

Applications for summer funding and Burns confirm that the most popular locations for internships are New York City, Boston and Washington, DC.


A New Market Trend

Assistant Professor of Sociology Jamie McCallum, who studies labor and work ethic in 20th century America, identifies internships as a new market trend responding to the economy’s need for cheap domestic labor.

“Businesses seem unable to pay decent wages, or any wages, for all of the workers they allegedly need,” McCallum said. “The intern economy provides a ‘solution’ to this problem.”

According to Business Insider, unpaid internships save corporations over two billion dollars a year. But most of these unpaid internships are illegal. The Department of Labor specifies that an internship can only be unpaid if it is with a non-profit or if the student is receiving school credit.

Attorney Maurice Pianko at Intern Justice told the New School Free Press: “99 percent of all unpaid internships in the for-profit market are illegal.”

Today, the Internet means hiring managers may receive many more applications for positions than they otherwise would, increasing competition among applicants.

“Twenty five years ago, [the job application process] was more a response to a classified ad,” Burns said. “It would just happen to be if you read the New York Times that Sunday and looked at the Classified department. Now, everything is online, and it is so easy for an employer to get thousands and thousands of applications.”

Furthermore, as children of Baby Boomers, the largest generation to date, Millennials face increased competition due to sheer population size.

“With Millennials, too, there are so many of you. So the competition is stiffer,” Burns said.

Additionally, Associate Professor of Sociology Linus Owens sees a changing definition of what is a ‘good job’ contributing to competition.

“What’s changed is the narrowing of fields that one can even speak of something that could be called a ‘career,’” Owens said. “With fewer viable options for ‘good jobs or careers,’ competition for those few spots intensifies.”

Burns also recognizes the 2008 market recession as an event that looms large in the memories of students anwd their families, causing them more job-anxiety.

The free labor intern economy, as McCallum describes it, is a self-perpetuating cycle. Students describe that previous experience is now often a prerequisite for the internships that they seek.

Nitya Mankad ’16, who interned with Goldman Sachs last summer, highlighted this caveat as the reason she began to apply for internships sophomore year.

“There tends to be a catch-22 with internships in that one needs experience to get experience,” Mankad said. “Since I didn’t have a lot of experience at the time, I didn’t think I would be able to find anything. But I knew I wanted to get a leg up and start preparing as early as possible, so I figured starting sophomore year couldn’t hurt.”


The Pressure to Intern

In interviews, most students agreed that it was personal pressure, not parental pressure or pressure from the College, that made them seek out internships.

“Most of the pressure I feel is self-imposed. Nobody is telling me I have to be a doctor,” Chris Diak ’18.5, who has completed many internships doing medical research, said.  “The reality I see, however, is that if I don’t seek out experiences that will help me become a good applicant to medical schools, somebody else will. There’s a strange balance I have to strike between wanting these experiences and knowing I should have them on my resume.”

Some students do think, though, that the student culture at the College contributes to the pressure to get an internship.

“I feel like the stress is created by something similar to the ‘everyone’s having sex’ phenomenon,” Erin Giles ’17 said.  “The idea that everyone is doing a summer internship when in reality, that’s not true. I honestly feel like a lot of sophomores end up not having an internship.”

“The high achieving culture at Middlebury is very motivating,” added Elizabeth Zhou ’18, who is interning with Bosnia Initiatives for Local Development this summer.


Open to Everyone?

Though valuable experience, unpaid internships can often prove prohibitively expensive for students.

“The internship economy does, in fact, perpetuate economic inequality,” McCallum said. “It affords certain people that are in a certain class to get a foot in the door in a way that other people simply can’t afford to do, no matter what is on your C.V. or resume.”

The CCI has been working to address this problem through the establishment of its Summer Internship Grants four years ago and its First Year Explorer Grants, new this year.

Additionally, the CCI is working to increase the number of paid internship opportunities available on MOJO. This year approximately 60 percent of internships on MOJO were paid positions, up from about 50 percent last year.

Still, for many students, it is personal connections, not MOJO, that make all the difference in finding an internship.

“Both internships I had this year were through family connections, and for New York, it was really helpful that I have my parents and through my high school friends who live in New York City,” Nan Philip ’16.5 said. “One of my friends doesn’t have connections in the city, and it’s been difficult for her to find an internship there this summer.”

International students also face unique challenges in getting internships, outside of the cost of shouldering an unpaid internship.

“I’ve heard of international students facing various challenges [like] employers discriminating against them based on their accent,” Martin Naunov ’17, a native of Macedonia who has completed two internships in Macedonia and this summer will intern with the United Nations in New York City, said.

Additionally, visa requirements also make it difficult for international students to intern in the US. International students are only allowed to participate in a paid internship in the US by opting into an Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. This program specifies that international students can only complete a paid internship during a 12 month period of time. Furthermore, students must apply in advance for approval and pay a $380 application fee to opt in.

Many universities give credit for internships, to help international students skirt these constraints, allowing them to legally participate in many unpaid internships. However, by a decision of the faculty last year, the College does not give credit for summer internships.

While Naunov applauds certain offices at the College, especially International Student and Scholar Services, for their efforts to help international students negotiate tricky visa situations, Naunov believes that the College’s administration could be doing more.

“If we claim to be one of the most diverse institutions in the US in terms of international students, then we better be able to give the international students the same opportunities as other students,” Naunov said.


Effect on the Undergraduate Experience

Pressure to find an internship, whether self-inflicted or otherwise, has influenced the undergraduate experience in marked ways, affecting what students participate in at the College and causing some students to describe the internship search as “like a fifth class.”

“I think the pressure definitely pushed me to take more classes pertinent to what I wanted to do this summer, which probably detracted from my ‘liberal arts’ educational experience,” Mankad said. “The desire for good internships also dictates many people’s extracurricular activities. For example, people interested in finance feel pushed towards being involved in the SIC [Student Investment Club], as most alumni will ask if students are involved.”

Incorporating the search for internships into the undergraduate experience is part of the CCI mission.

“[We want to emphasize] that thinking about life after Middlebury is part of that undergraduate adventure, as [much as] your course work, your sport, a club or an organization that you belong to,” Burns said.

McCallum argues, however, that this attitude towards internships has serious consequences for a liberal arts education.

“If education is about figuring out how to get a job, then the liberal arts might be in trouble,” McCallum said. “What [job anxiety] drives people to do, i.e. to certain courses of study here, is a real problem. What you study is less important than how you study it. And I’m not sure that people realize that.”

“Now, everyone has to learn ‘practical’ skills — STEM, they tell us, and Econ, they also tell us, which is another way that undergraduate students and institutions subsidize companies who don’t want to take responsibility for training workers,” Owens said.

McCallum also sees this career-focus as influencing work ethic in problematic ways.

“I see Middlebury students as dedicated to their work in a way that past generations have not been. That’s not to say that they’re passionate about it, necessarily, but that the obsession with being busy and what seems like a compulsive necessity to fill your time with work or busy-work or preparing work is a real issue in your lives.”

Largely, McCallum observes in his studies this career-focus diminishing how much people value leisure.

“We’ve figured out how to celebrate work,” McCallum said. “But I think that a commitment to leisure as a fundamental part of a healthy life is important. How to go about doing that is a more difficult question.”


Will this Change?

Owens is not optimistic that the current intern economy, in which highly educated undergraduates are trading free labor for unquantifiable ‘experience,’ can be easily altered.

“As long as there is widespread economic inequality, in which labor of all sorts is under attack, where even ‘good jobs or careers’ for an educated elite are no longer safe, then this trend is sure to continue,” Owens said. “It will take a lot of political work to enact any kind of significant change.”

McCallum agreed that any kind of change will be long-term. For now it seems, the millennial and the internship will have to learn to be friendly co-workers.

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