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The Job Gap

By Randall S. Barton on July 31, 2013 10:07 AM

Rachel Yahn

This summer finds Reed students interning at the Paris Review, studying the art of Japanese woodblock printing in Kyoto, farming organically in the Provence, and interning at a law firm.

Learning for its own sake is a trope frequently invoked to describe a liberal arts education. Conventional wisdom, however, holds that employers flock to those college graduates with quantifiable workplace skills. Increasingly a summer internship serves as the bridge for exhibiting skills that will translate to success in the job market.

Reed’s office of career services works with students to guide them in career development, hone their interviewing skills, advise on job applications, and help them access a community of partners that includes parents and alumni. One key initiative is helping students identify and secure summer internships.

Ron Albertson, director of career services, estimates that as many as 70 percent of Reed students engage in some sort of summer internship, externship, summer work, or research opportunity that provides experience beyond the curriculum—some of them funded by Reed. Unlike many institutions of higher learning, Reed does not award credit for internships. But career services works to equip students with the means to gain those experiences, and the tools to reflect on them in a meaningful way.

Students who have used Reed funding to go and do cool things in the world, for example, are required to share their experiences on the blog, Works & Days.

Unpaid internships muddy the water

If internships bridge a gap, the troubled water below is the issue of unpaid internships at for-profit companies. Recent litigation has driven the U.S. Department of Labor to tighten its definitions regarding what kinds of situations qualify an employer to not pay an intern.

In 2011, Eric Glatt, a former intern for the “Black Swan” film production company, successfully sued Fox Searchlight for wages, adding to the debate about whether unpaid internships offer valuable on-the-job training or exploit young people and perpetuate inequality (i.e. those who can afford to work for free tend to come from financially advantaged families). According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 47 percent of the student internships granted to the class of 2012 were unpaid, including a third of the internships at for-profit companies.

Three years ago the Department of Labor established a “test for unpaid interns,” listing six criteria by which interns may participate without compensation at for-profit companies. The intern cannot displace a regular employee; the experience is for the benefit of the intern; the internship is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment; the intern is not entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; both employer and intern understand the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship; and the employer derives no immediate advantages from the activities of the intern. 

Reed strongly urges students to avoid unpaid internships. Brooke Hunter, assistant director for strategic partnerships at Reed’s career services, says that interns working at for-profit companies need to be paid, and takes it a step further.

“We counsel students to be cautious about nonprofit organizations that are offering up unpaid internships as well. If the organization has the mentality that says, ‘your experience will be worth a lot of money to you, but we’re not going to pay you anything,' then there's a good liklihood that the nonprofit is suffering from a case of low expectations and there won't be a job for you when you graduate. We encourage students to do good due diligence when they choose the nonprofits because there are so many who do hire entry level folks, particularly those who've volunteered."

Hunter cites a National Association of Colleges and Employers’ survey, which shows people who participate in unpaid internships actually have a worse chance of getting a job than those who do not participate in internships. The reason is that those students tend to go back to the places that didn’t pay them to find jobs, and those organizations have a scarcity mentality that keeps them from hiring people.

Increasingly companies are viewing paid internships as a recruiting tool, says Albertson. Companies like Goldman Sachs no longer recruit seniors on campus. Instead they target juniors, bringing them on for the summer as paid interns, and then selecting from that pool to hire.

The Reed advantage

Reed is finding creative ways to help students maneuver through the highly competitive world of internships. The Reed College Summer Internship Advantage partners with alumni, parents and families, business, and friends of the college to drum up opportunities for students.

This includes both for-profit companies who agree to pay at least $10 per hour and nonprofits that Reed recruits. A Reed parent provided funding for five students to work this summer in the nonprofit sector. In addition, three students are interning in the for-profit sector, making a total of eight students in the first Internship Advantage crop.

“A weakness of the unpaid internship program is that only people who have other means of support, can do them,” says Albertson. “Our development officers are out there raising money so that any student might engage in a summer internship with a nonprofit organization. We’d provide a stipend for them to do that, although we won’t let them carry that portable funding to a for-profit business.”

Reed is also part of a consortium of colleges that maintains an internship database that lists more than 8,000 intern positions. Whether the opportunity comes through the Internship Advantage initiative or is something students find on their own, career services works with applicants to ensure their materials are competitive, and that they are comfortable and confident in interviews.

“These days, competitive internships are mostly online so there are a lot of things you really need to do to be competitive that are not necessarily straightforward,” Hunter says. “We meet students where they are, figure out what they need and help them get there.”

The Internship Advantage program also seeks people willing to provide housing for students who must travel to participate in an internship. Those interested in providing housing are encouraged to contact Hunter by email.

In addition to the students in the advantage program, another eight Reed students are completing summer internships in the public or nonprofit sector through the McGill Lawrence internship award. Funded by an endowment to help cultivate an environment of understanding and respect for multicultural issues at Reed, the award provides recipients with $4,000 for eight weeks of full-time engagement.

Eight students are participating in the Reed College President’s Summer Fellowship, which awards students $5,000 to plan and develop a creative and innovative experience that can be carried out over the course of the summer.

Two students are completing Elizabeth Ducey Summer Internships in Public Policy. Established to provide students with the opportunity to spend a summer working and researching in a policymaking organization, the program provides $3,000 to each of two students accepted as unpaid interns at policy-related agencies. Duceys are administered by the political science department, but open to economics majors and other students who have a strong interest in public policy.

Reed’s Winter Externship Program gives students the opportunity to job shadow professionals anywhere from two to ten days during winter break. Four students are doing internships this summer as a direct result of the externships they did in the winter.

“Externships give that extra bit of confidence, because a student has been in a milieu and has the context to talk about it with confidence when they apply for an internship,” says Hunter.

Externships also give students the opportunity to tire-kick a profession to see if it’s what they want.

“We’d rather have students know, ‘I don’t really like this kind of work’ as sophomores or juniors and be able to shift their focus rather then when they’re out in the world on their first job,” adds Albertson.

Last winter, Rachel Yahn ’14 did an externship at the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases. “It’s always hard to break into the world of science with your first research experience, as they are so competitive,” she blogs. “My externship at NIAID with Dr. Kottilil was a stepping stone to my first research experience. Having that experience under my belt really gave me something to draw upon while writing my application essays for summer internships and I was able to show that I was confident, thatI wanted to do research, and that I knew what it was all about.“In a perfect world,” says Albertson, “the progression would be externship, internship, job."

"The alumni directory is a great resource for students," says Hunter. More than 2,300 alumni have identified themselves as Reed career network volunteers, showing up on their own dime for Working Weekend and roundtables, and making themselves available to answer student questions by phone, as a way of giving back to the college.

Every September, career services hosts an event, “Schmoozing is Good for the Brain,” which coincides with Leadership Summit, bringing students together with Reed friends and alumni. The event is designed to teach students how to approach people they’ve never met and engage in productive dialogue.

While Reed students excel across the board at being able to critically analyze data and spit it out in different ways, they may have difficulty articulating those skills.

“They don’t realize that the amazing muscles that they develop in their discipline can translate to other things,” says Albertson.

Externships and internships are important because experience enables a student to talk about a field. And while students avail themselves of many networks to leverage a job, Albertson says that of the students from the class of 2012 who secured jobs, 90 percent had engaged with career services an average of seven times.

Discover more about how Reedies are spending their summer.