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Paid Internships May Be Scarce, But It’s A Way To Hire The Best

by
John Zappe
Feb 24, 2009, 5:00 am ET

While you digest the consequences of eliminating your college recruiting consider one of the benefits of maintaining — or starting — an internship program: You’ll have an uncrowded pool to swim in.

Steven Rothberg

As you might already suspect, internship opportunities for college students this year have been severely curtailed. Numbers are hard to come by since many internships are informal or are called something else. However, Steven Rothberg, founder and president of CollegeRecruiter.com tells us his site has about 10,000 jobs categorized as internships, which is half what it was a year ago.

“The number and quality of internship opportunities are significantly down this year over last,” says Rothberg, noting that it appears the majority of those available are unpaid. Again, no hard numbers on paid vs. unpaid internships — “that’s impossible to track,” he says — but from his conversations with employers, “They are either eliminating the program entirely or they’re eliminating the compensation.”

This comes at a time when the competition for what used to be called summer jobs has rarely been keener. Because companies across the U.S. have been retrenching, this spring’s crop of graduating seniors will face a tight job market. A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) issued in October showed employers expected to hire the same or fewer students than they did last year.

“Overall, hiring looks flat for now and some employers are indicating some movement to cut back,” Marilyn Mackes, NACE executive director, said when the report was issued. “In August, approximately one-third of employers said they were going to trim their college hiring; in our current poll, however, 52 percent said they were going to adjust their college hiring downward.”

Now, four months later, that projection looks almost optimistic. Thus graduating seniors who would have entered the labor force in years past will now be competing with juniors and sophomores for internships, says Rothberg.

“This Spring’s going to find a lot of college seniors taking unpaid positions,” he told us. “If they can’t get a paying job, they’ll be looking for the experience for their resume.”

Richard Bottner

Richard Bottner

Richard Bottner, founder and president of Intern Bridge, a consultancy that helps SMBs develop and administer internship programs, tells us, “This is a year unlike any other year.” He’s referring not only to the scramble for jobs by college students, but to the opportunities for recruiters.

“Recruiters have a bigger advantage this year than in any other year that my generation has experienced,” says the 24-year-old. “It used to be more balanced” between internships available and the students seeking them, he explains. Now, “recruiters will find it easier to find better talent. There’s a lot more competition out there for every internship.”

He laments the conversion of paying positions to unpaid because it takes out of contention students who simply must earn money for school. On the other hand, Bottner says it makes even the low-paying positions far more attractive.

“This is a year that many of the smaller companies should be able to compete for really top talent, if they don’t cut out the pay,” says Bottner, who has been advising the small and medium sized businesses he focuses on to “pay what they can, but pay.”

Though Rothberg’s view is that it is better to offer an unpaid internship than none at all, he, too, says recruiters with paying jobs should brace for the onslaught of applications. “They’ll have their pick,” he says, even if their company isn’t one of the big names.

His advice to students is to take a job “any job and then intern part-time.” Even fast food jobs, Rothberg suspects, will look better and better to college students as the end of semester nears. “Any job that is associated with a paycheck will be a cool job,” he predicts and most students “would rather get the experience than nothing at all.”

Both men do agree on this: Companies that hire interns now will be better positioned for the eventual recovery. Says Bottner, if the internship is well structured, something Intern Bridge can help ensure, then “the student the company hires and who gets something valuable from the experience is going to be a prime prospect later on.”

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Steven Rothberg

    Great article, John. The only quibble that I have is that some readers may infer that Richard and I disagree about the issues. Actually, I think that we agree on all of them. We agree that paid internships are best for students and employers and we agree that if those aren’t possible then unpaid internships are much, much better than none at all.

  2. Brandi Blades

    Interesting article, John. Tapping into young talent is crucial — it’s one of the few methods that actually makes sense in the current market.

    When you bring fresh, emerging talent into your workforce, the benefits strongly outweigh any initial hesitations a company might have. Not only can companies eliminate the need to pay a premium for seasoned professionals, they can harness the intelligence and awareness of Gen Y talent — an almost priceless commodity, no matter what the health of the market might be. As Bottner noted, internships, paid or unpaid, can often lead to permanent positions. Essentially, a company gets to “audition” their staff before making any long-term decisions. Not a bad way to go.

    The beautiful thing is that companies are not the only party that wins, here. As the article points out, recruits (be they graduate, undergraduate, or currently enrolled) get the experience they need in an fiercely competitive job market. Yes, the job landscape is rocky for a newly diploma-ed twentysomething; but a job at McDonald’s doesn’t have to be his fate.

    Brill Street is placing the brightest recruits in fields from IT to engineering to marketing to human resources (and many others) each day and our recruits know that their abilities can take them from “intern” to “indispensable,” fast.

    I agree–slashing college recruiting now is not the best way to position for long-term success. Companies with short-term needs and a long-term vision shouldn’t overlook Gen Y.

    Brandi Blades
    Brill Street + Company
    http://www.brillstreet.com

  3. Ted Williams

    Smart companies will hire interns and give them the freedom to create. The ROI can be incredible. It is simple: hire the smartest college students, give them the resources, and let them go. As always, the hardest part is finding the right students.

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