I participate in a lot of discussions lately about helping our students be “work ready” or “career ready.” We talk about training, mentoring, coaching, and in my opinion, the most effective avenue to workplace readiness, internships and jobs. So it was with some concern that I ready an Op-Ed piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times regarding the problems with internships. Ross Perlin argues that the collusion between higher ed and employers to push unpaid internships exploits students, violates the law, and provides unfair advantage to those most able to afford the privilege.
In my recent recruiting experience, college and grad students often have resumes that sparkle and shine with blue-chip names. Stints at investment banks, consulting firms, law firms, high-level govenrmental agencies, prestigious non-profits leave me feeling that my summer in a tool-and-die factory was the result of a misspent youth. Yet it nags at me – how many of these internships are hard-earned, and how many are bought and paid for? What Perlin does not mention is that as the market for these experiences grows, their value diminishes. Employers know the game and are increasingly viewing the solid gold-plated resume with a suspicious eye.
I remember reading about the college admission season, with colleges sorting through thousands of applications from students with stellar summer experiences. Photojournalism trips to Bolivia, agricultural summers spent in South Africa, and other experiences litter the applications. Yet one admissions officer from Yale stated that they understand the game people are playing, and suggested that he takes more interest in a student who spent their summer pumping gas at the local gas station. At least then, he offered, he knew the student had some real-world experience.
The employment market these days is brutal. I talk to highly qualified young lawyers, fresh out of law school, who cannot find volunteer work, let alone a paying job with a law firm, with which to fill their resumes. Technologists struggle to find work in the information technology field. Sales people are left without jobs as sales have dropped. The solid gold resumes do not appear to help when there are no jobs.
There are bright spots. I read yesterday that at my alma mater, job offers to graduating seniors are triple what they were a year ago. The unemployment rate dropped to 8.8% last month. There are glimmers of hope.
So what do we do we make of all this? Perlin’s article points out the need to be vigilant. We have an obligation to help place our students in meaningful internships – most hopefully while getting paid. I still believe being work-ready through experience is the best way to prepare our students for the world of work. While looking for opportunities, though, we should guard against the easy placement into jobs that pad resumes and exploit our students without truly preparing them. Our future employers will value our students when they offer a firm handshake, look in their eyes, and tell their life story convincingly and with passion. When we prepare our students to do this, we prepare them for a lifetime of confidently facing the future.