Do college internships lead to jobs? Yes, especially if internships are paid.

As a college student, I never did any internships during the summer. I waitressed to earn spending and book money for school. Most of my friends also worked over the break. (I also worked at restaurants during the school year so I had both a steady source of income and food.)

When I went to graduate school, I was surprised how many of my Columbia University journalism school classmates had interned with major newspapers and TV stations in New York, LA, Boston or Washington. Typically, the students had attended colleges in big cities where internships were accessible or had personal contacts in the industries who opened doors. And they often had parents who could cover their living expenses as internships paid little or nothing back then.

The internships proved useful; classmates were often hired by the companies after they graduated. The rest of us found jobs but a rung or two down the career ladder or in small-town media markets.

Today, internships are more common. But I still find certain students go after them. Connections matter, whether through family or friends. And money matters as many students interning in New York fashion houses or Seattle music studios are only able to do so because their parents are footing the bills.

That reality has led to criticisms of internship programs, including a piece this week in The New York Times by Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. Walker decries an internship system that often benefits the students who already enjoy an edge.

Walker writes:  We often hear that success is “all about the people you know” — as if it’s just a matter of equal-opportunity relationship building. We rarely talk about how one knows them, or about the privilege that has become a prerequisite to knowing the right people. I sometimes get calls and emails from friends seeking help in landing internships for their children. I understand what they’re doing; this is part of being a parent. Still, it’s a reminder that America’s current internship system, in which contacts and money matter more than talent, contributes to an economy in which access and opportunity go to the people who already have the most of both.

Today, the Economic Policy Institute released a brief on a student survey on internships and jobs. The survey found:

Overall, an employer was far more likely to offer a job to a student prior to graduation if he or she had an internship or co-op — especially a paid position. The gap in offer rates between students with internship/co-op experience and those without such experience grew from 12.6 percent in 2011 to 20 percent in 2015 (56.5 percent versus 36.5 percent).

The survey examined student job offers, noting:

Paid internships/co-ops with private, for-profit companies yielded the highest offer rate (72.2 percent). In contrast, just 43.9 percent of students who had unpaid internships/co-ops with private, for-profit companies received offers.

The difference in offer rates between paid and unpaid positions is evident across employer types, including nonprofit (51.7 percent vs. 41.5 percent), state/local government (50.5 percent vs. 33.8 percent), and federal government sectors (61.9 percent vs. 50 percent).

There was also a similar pattern in regard to starting salary offers. Having had a paid internship/co-op with a private, for-profit company yielded the highest median offer at $53,521, while the median offer for students who took unpaid internships/co-ops with a private, for-profit company was $34,375.

The same held true across industry sectors—nonprofit ($41,876 vs. $31,443), state/local government ($42,693 vs. $32,969), and federal government sectors ($48,750 vs. $42,501)

Here is a chart from EPI and the official summary:




It’s internship season and offices across the country are filled with interns trying to make a good impression. Do internships lead to jobs? It depends. Evidence shows that paid internships lead to better employment outcomes than do unpaid internships. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Student Survey Report provides troubling evidence that unpaid internships are associated with less success in the job market after graduation, both in terms of job offers and salary offers.

•College students who had an unpaid internship did significantly worse than students in paid internships, whether the job was non-profit, state, federal, or for-profit. The job offer rate for graduates who had taken a paid, for-profit internship was 72% vs. 44% for unpaid, for-profit internships .

•The NACE survey found that regardless of the sector, unpaid interns received lower salary offers than students who had taken a paid internship.

•Most notably, the median graduate who had taken an unpaid internship in a for-profit firm was offered $19,000 less than the median paid intern in such firms.


Reader Comments 0


No surprise here, of course a hiring manager is going to give preference to someone with whom they have first hand experience.  In my Fortune 500 company, about 90% of our department's entry level hires are former interns.  Having served on numerous hiring committees, it's a no brainer.

As Astro mentioned below, it is also an effective way to keep from making a bad hiring decision.  If they don't work out as an intern, they are not going to work out as a full time employee.

"Walker decries an internship system that often benefits the students who already enjoy an edge."  

Sounds like Walker needs to sit on management's side of the table.  After a  few bad hires, he'll be clamoring for an internship program.....



"Walker decries an internship system that often benefits the students who already enjoy an edge."  

Sounds like Walker needs to sit on management's side of the table.  After a  few bad hires, he'll be clamoring for an internship program.....

Amen. Leave that PC crap back at college. Companies are making big money hiring decisions.Doling out social justice or evening the score is not their concern.There are whole departments at companies of any size specifically devoted to making sure that employment opportunities are not discriminatory or illegal.The students that "already enjoy and edge" are in many cases students that honed their advantage by being hard workers and go-getters. 


Astrowife oversees a fresh crop of engineering interns every year at her GiantMegaHugeCo chemical company.She has had pretty good ones and her company does offer pretty lucrative ($75K + starting salaries) for interns that they hire permanently.Of course,the interns themselves make decent money ($40K or so) Good ChemE's are in demand. 

Several traits that she and other managers look at:

1) Communications skills.

Engineering involves tons of reports and the ability to clearly communicate ideas and specifications,sometimes to technicians and tradesmen.If they can't write a simple report or make a presentation to executive management,they're not much good.She assigns them reporting functions from day one to see if they can communicate well enough to do the job.

2) Work ethics

Show up late a lot? Miss deadlines? Slough your work off on others? No problem-You just won't be offered a job at GiantMegaHugeCo when your internship is complete.They have to work with the people they hire and they don't want to teach you how to be a good worker while you learn how to be a good engineer.

3) Adaptability

Safety and environmental regulations can change dramatically,suddenly and frequently.They look for people that can shift on the fly when necessary and get up to speed on sudden changes in the industry.

4) The Basics

Appropriate attire. Don't interrupt. Professional language.No workplace romance. No off color or racist  jokes. Treat department assistants as valuable team members.Keep criticism constructive.

An internship there is like solid gold.It's an extended job interview that sidesteps all of the HR nonsense that others have to go through.It's face time with people that actually make hiring decisions,so I would say take it and run with it if you get offered one.


Paid is always better than unpaid, but internships are important either way.  The difference in hiring percentage may be due to a higher standard in accepting interns if paid, and a larger number of applicants so that paid interns have already competed for a desirable internship.
Internships are good for applicants and employers.