Once you’re a working adult making your way in the workplace, there is one thing you will likely never do again: search a job board for the word “internship”. I encourage you to give it a try. In the last few years, I have started running this search regularly. The consistently small number of search results reminds me that few practical opportunities exist for the number of college students looking for jobs and internships in their fields of study.
Are jobs and internships available for college students?
A few years ago, I knew a freshman in college who was diligently working on a Computer Science degree. He wasn’t the top of his class but he was far from the bottom of his class. He was paying his own way through school, trying to avoid student loans if at all possible.
The student’s college town was not a hub of industry. The only jobs for college students in his college town were restaurants and retail. He maintained a campus office job through the school year to help pay his way, but it was not in his field of study. Summer was coming, and he needed some real-world experience to build his resume and get some practical skill and experience. He also needed a job, any job, because he needed to build up his nest egg for the next school year’s costs.
Job fairs were hosted by the campus career office at his university in the fall and spring. He participated in every job fair, handing out resumes and networking with the companies who were present. Many internships promoted by the job fairs were formal, organized internship programs created by major companies. These Fortune 500 companies only wanted the cream of the crop. The Googles and Microsofts of the world swept through the campus, and interviewed and hired a small handful of top-shelf students for the summer. These big companies were hiring for internships, but they only hired a tiny fraction of the number of students looking for internships.
He applied for every internship for which he was qualified through the fall and spring, but no doors were opening. Even more frustrating, though, was that few internships were even available. One day, as winter turned to spring, he took a photo of the jobs bulletin board on his campus that was used for posting area jobs and internships. The job board was completely empty. In similar fashion, he recognized that the LinkedIn online jobs board daily listed dozens of listings for “Chief Executive Officer” while showing zero listings for “Intern” or related search terms.
From a distance, I realized that this young man would not find an internship in his field of study if things did not change. He was running out of time. Even though he was involved in campus organizations, he was not relationally connected into any particular community of business people. His only source of leads for an internship was job listings, and the number of posted job listings for internships was abysmal. The more I watched, the more concerned I became, and I finally asked if I could help.
How did I find my first jobs when I was a student?
Looking back on my own life, most of my early jobs in high school and college were created for me. My dad knew business owners, managers, and influencers in the community, and he asked if they would consider hiring me for the summer. Over time, working local jobs with local businessmen, I developed my own network of relationships with owners, managers, and influencers. Through that network, I was able to advance into other jobs and find a career field I wanted to personally pursue.
My early jobs as a student were created by employers and business leaders around me who could help. They responded to my need for money, skills, and experience by giving me a job, often created a position just for me. In so doing, they helped themselves by filling some gap in their company’s day to day operations. These “grownups” were doing a good deed to build my future, but they were also hoping that the deed would also impact the future of their company.
How can we make a difference for the students we know?
Based on my own experience and realization, I reached out, on behalf of my college friend, to my own network of business leaders and influencers. This student sent me his resume in digital format, and I reached out to about ten people I know who would have an influence on hiring in their organizations. Several of my friends were interested and asked me to send along his resume. I sent the resume, and then I connected him directly to them by email. I passed to him the responsibility to follow up with the conversation and land the job. He communicated with them directly and ultimately interviewed with several of them.
He was overjoyed when he received an internship offer for the summer. I personally found a sense of fulfillment in helping him find that connection. Even better, if he kept in touch with everyone with whom I had connected him, he could build and sustain his own network for future use. He has developed an initial rapport with each of these business leaders over coffee and conversation. If he chose to do so, he could nurture his own professional network going forward. I chalked the whole situation up as a success.
Are we preparing today’s students for the workplace?
For me, this entire interaction opened my eyes. I live in a growing, energetic metropolitan area. An estimated 50,000 college and graduate students live here and pursue degrees across many fields of study. Yet, today, when I search a job postings app, I find around 50 postings under the word “intern” or internship”. That ratio calculates to 1 available internship for every 1000 students. Is this a sign that we are missing out on building skills and experience opportunities for students?
Students are in college to prepare for jobs and career in any number of fields and industries, and most of them are taking on student loans to do so. Are we — the “grownups” out in the workplace — doing our part in making sure these students learn practical skills and develop professional networks that will prepare them for the workplace when they graduate?
What responsibility do we have to this future generation? Are we doing our part? We hear that millennials are not ready for the workplace and are difficult to hire and manage. Do we hold any responsibility to help form this generation while they are in college? Could we actively help them form job skills and workplace mindsets by creating internship opportunities in their fields of study?
Pursuing a degree is only one piece of the jobs equation. We cannot rely on college and universities to bear all the weight of preparing students for their careers. If we help students build practical skills and experience and a core network of industry relationships, we bring the action to their education. We can help build pathways to better job understanding and performance and help them build their resumes with functional skills and experience.
What can we do to create job opportunities and internships?
What have I learned from this? In helping one student, I have realized that there are thousands more that need help. Again, in my hometown alone, there are 50,000 students for 50 active internship postings. How do we even begin to make an impact on that level of disparity?
In the United States, we have a broad, untapped population of students who are gaining little to no experience in their fields of study. Creative employers can use students to fill gaps in their workforce if they will take the time to connect the students into jobs and internships that match their abilities.
Let’s be honest about one of the challenges facing a solution: employers don’t want to deal with the hassle of training students through their lack of maturity and experience. Companies are not sure the dollar cost value of hiring college students is worth the effort compared to older, more experienced employees. They are not, on a large scale, willing to take the risk of working with college students.
When employers and managers avoid the current pain of hiring and training a college student, we are not preparing college students for tomorrow. We will someday need these students to be trained for the skilled workplace of the future. Retail and restaurant jobs go only so far in preparing students for advanced fields.
We are hoping that someone else, maybe the college and universities, will train and prepare tomorrow’s workforce into hirable adults with solid resumes and experiences. But we must realize that the responsibility does not lie in only schools. If we are not putting forth an effort to hire and train students while they are still in school, these students will graduate with book knowledge but will be ill-prepared for the workplace.
We, as business owners and business managers, must put forth the effort to create job positions to hire students while they are still in school. We must not rely on big companies to do this hiring.
Whether we are a part of a large company or a small business, we can identify needs within our companies with students in mind. From there, we can work through the internal administrative hurdles that limit forward action and can start actively hiring students. We can figure out and refine our training processes and develop student-specific policies as we bring them on board.
But we must start sooner rather than later. If we act now, we can give students real-world experience before the day comes when we need them to do the work we expect of college graduates.