Ten or fifteen years ago, interns made coffee and copies. In 2020, interns take charge of projects that kick start their careers and further business.
There's been "a shift in the right direction," said Christine Cruzvergara, VP of higher education and student success at Handshake, an app that connects college students with employers for internships and jobs. "The majority of internships are really strong learning opportunities where they're working on real projects."
Carving a meaningful internship out of what once may have been a glorified barista training program requires commitment from both employer and intern. When one empowers the other, Cruzvergara said, they unlock the symbiotic potential of internships.
'A true learning opportunity'
As employers move to make internships more valuable for all involved, the end result trends toward growth. "Employers are becoming more and more intentional about how they set up their internships to make it a true learning opportunity," Cruzvergara said. There are two hallmarks of these kinds of programs, she observed.
Internships that create "a true learning opportunity" follow a specific plan. Before the internship starts, employers identify the learning outcomes they want interns to experience. They will need to ask themselves some questions to determine their plan: Do our interns span departments, or are they isolated to technical roles or non-technical roles? Will they rotate through areas, or will they stay in one place for the entire program? These questions may look different depending on the employer, Cruzvergara said, but they come from one basic question: What should interns learn?
These plans should include details about professional development opportunities, Cruzvergara noted. Employers may already have formal or informal learning infrastructure they can extend to interns. Organizations can include interns in lunch-and-learn programs, Cruzvergara said, or create a special series focused on pertinent issues. These topics could range from resume building to proper office attire.
A supervisor is the second hallmark of a learning-focused internship. "It seems simple, but it's really important," Cruzvergara said. "[Interns] need someone who will meet with them regularly for one-on-ones and help them walk through what they're experiencing and how to make sense of that." This ensures interns exit with professional experience.
A robust internship program will allow participants to apply their best effort, Cruzvergara said.
Good interns will take the time to ask questions as they encounter challenges, which they'll greet with initiative, according to Cruzvergara. They'll take advantage of a moment set aside for their learning and later showcase what knowledge, skills and experience they gained. They may — and they should, she said — seek out mentors who can help them achieve their best work.
Pay paves the way for employers and interns alike
It's important to note that employers are obligated to pay employees. This includes interns if they qualify as employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The U.S. Department of Labor as of January 2018 uses a test called the "primary beneficiary" test to determine whether workers are unpaid interns or employees entitled to compensation. Generally, the test considers what the agency calls the "economic reality" of the situation to determine the status of the worker. Of course, stricter tests may apply to employers depending on their jurisdiction.
"We are seeing a rise in more internships being paid," Cruzvergara said. Employers may decide to pay interns for reasons such as compliance and employment branding, but it impacts recruiting and diversity and inclusion in a big way. "More and more employers and companies are trying to diversify their workforce," Cruzvergara said. Unpaid internships "automatically limit" employers to a certain talent pool — generally, the pool of people with access to money that pays the bills a paid job would cover. "The employers that care about this find a way to pay," she said.
Cruverga's observations were echoed by Carlos Mark Vera, who co-founded Pay Our Interns, which describes itself as "the only bipartisan, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that advocates for an increase in the amount of paid internships within our government, for-profit, and nonprofit sectors."
"There's definitely this trend, even in non-profits," he said. "And not just to pay, but paying an amount off of which you can actually survive." A $200 stipend over six months, he said, is not going to cover many expenses.
For Vera, the justification for unpaid internships — that experience takes the place of pay for novice workers — is an excuse that excludes many people. "If I'm at the grocery store, at the check-out line, and the cashier says 'cash or credit,' and I say 'experience,' I'm going to get a weird look," he said. There are interns who are able to find the money to pay cash or credit at the grocery store elsewhere, "but some people don't have that option."
Some may criticize the demand that employers pay interns, saying students and young professionals aren't forced to have this experience, Vera said. But those without internships on their resumes "end up being punished for lack of experience." Students who had internships exhibited lower unemployment and higher wages, according to a study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
While pay paves the way to a more diverse and inclusive program, the effort can't stop there, Vera said. "You have to be intentional," he continued. Employers can extend recruiting efforts to community colleges, historically black colleges and universities, and minority organizations. "That's the next step, that intentionality."