It's been reported that Condé Nast publications will no longer sponsor internships. This news comes as some of their flagship publications are embroiled in lawsuits with former interns demanding unpaid wages. The interns' argument is that they should be treated like employees for purposes of compensation because they were treated like employees in terms of responsibility. While these cases move through the courts, it's important to note the significance—and consequences—of Condé Nast's decision. Internships represent an important step in the training and development of young workers. But eliminating internship programs will rob those workers of important experience and force employers to confront a widening gap in the training of their staff.
Perhaps with the exception of vocational or professional studies (doctors, lawyers, etc.), I believe a liberal arts education should be a guiding principle in the academic life of college students. Such an education exposes students to a broad range of subjects and problems and encourages them to think critically and creatively. That exposure makes for well-rounded graduates, with problem-solving skills sufficient to meet the demands of future studies or employment. College days should be spent learning how to think, as that ability will be used throughout their lifetime.
Unfortunately for many workers, the current economy has increased pressure on overhead so much that—if employers are even hiring at all—they expect to fill their ranks with workers who can step into a job and immediately perform at a high level. Additionally, the high cost of training, when weighed against the potential for employee turnover, can make employers unwilling to invest in their employees. More and more it seems that employers demand skilled workers yet are unwilling to train them. Employers are looking not just for the specific skills needed to perform the tasks at hand, but also for experience that can only be learned while on-the-job. Entry-level workers have neither those specific skills nor any on-the-job experience.
So while a college education may prepare students for the workforce, it may not prepare them for the workplace.
This is why well-run internship programs are so important. Internships can be the bridge between a college-level education and the specific demands of today's workplace. Condé Nast's decision (which other major corporations are no doubt mulling themselves) has wide implications for future workers. Eliminating internship programs eliminates a valuable way for college students to gain the extra training that employers demand.
A rewarding internship challenges the intern and prepares them for future work, neither treating them like a child nor expecting them to perform like a seasoned veteran. Such a program requires a curriculum, with both the employer and the intern providing input as to what they want from the experience. It requires close management and supervision of the intern. Also, internships should be available to all and not just the affluent. The high cost-of-living for an internship outside a college dorm shouldn't keep young workers from obtaining the experience they need to excel as entry-level workers, or be seen as a premium they have to pay on top of tuition. With internship programs run using these criteria, both company and intern will get something valuable out of the experience.
Most importantly, the question of compensation must be dealt with. It is too easy for an internship to create a culture in which it appears okay to offer or accept work for free. There are many reasons why someone might agree to undertake work without financial benefit in return, but any decision to do so needs to include an acknowledgement of the other benefits received. In a well-structured internship program, interns actually get an educational benefit and therefore shouldn't need a financial one.
That doesn't let anybody off the hook. Employers shouldn't get to use interns for free labor. Interns need to understand that they are being trained to become employees, not that they already are employees. Internships should be structured so that these issues are mitigated. Additionally, the presence of interns at a company should never displace paid workers.
The current economy demands that students become agile workers, able to easily adapt to a constantly changing workplace. The burden of ensuring that young workers are ready should be shared by both colleges and employers. Higher education should be designed to make students flexible, creative, life-long learners. Employers should structure their internship programs and jobsite training so that employees can learn what they deem necessary to do a great job. By working in tandem, these institutions can ensure that young workers are adequately prepared.
Eliminating internships is a short-sighted decision with long-range impact. Structured internship programs that bridge the training gap between college and the workplace, while being sensitive to the issues of compensation and employment, are essential. Otherwise, we risk continuing to add workers to a workforce unprepared to meet the demands of our economy.