Disrupting Internships

Joanna Venator and Richard Reeves makes an important point about the relationship between Social Mobility and Unpaid Internships (see here). While it is an apparently great way of connecting employers willing to allow young people work experience with students who can afford to do this for free, this gets in the way of social mobility. Not just richer and more connected parents get their children better quality internships, the very fact that some people can afford to do unpaid internships while most others can not, make the all-important difference. The equation is simple - employers hire for experience over anything else and internship provides a way to buy, as one still has to be able to afford to be an intern, experience.

This is the way it has been, one could say. The other way of looking at it is that this is one aspect of education ripe for disruption. Internship is a product, which many can not afford. Its value is well established, but there are many non-consumers. And, while one may not be able to beat those 120-hours a week monstrosities in investment banks easily, there are a number of organisations which could offer internships digitally, allowing young people to build work portfolios without having to live somewhere else. Indeed, they would not be equal to the real thing, but at a time when work is going digital, at least in some important sectors, the digital internships may be that good-enough alternative which may turn non-consumers into consumers.

This is somewhat less ambitious than changing the whole structure of the degrees, embedding real life work experience into the education process itself, and in some cases, upending the traditional education process completely with a competency-based model. That model is of greater value than just opening up internships to those who can not afford. But that is also more difficult, given the different cultural and social meaning that are embedded in education. A majority of British undergraduates still rate Social Experience as the main reason for choosing a college, deferring the career worries only until later. The higher education as a middle class ritual is far more complex to challenge than the internship as posh privilege, which middle classes want to get a share of.

Can a meaningful intern experience be built online? At the least, this ought to be easier than replicating a whole university out there, which other people have done. This may need to go far beyond just connecting candidates with opportunities, including providing a managed space where the work could happen, and the candidates can get feedback and earn credits that they can later use with employers. This can also be the space they can learn useful job skills, communication, collaboration, prioritization etc., and connect with recruiters looking for their areas of expertise and experience.



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