Are internships replacing entry-level jobs?

Mar 06, 2024

5 mins

Are internships replacing entry-level jobs?

While internships may seem like a modern invention, the concept actually dates back to the Middle Ages, when young workers would temporarily live and work with a mentor to learn skilled trades or crafts. While today’s interns may not have the medieval benefits of room and board—let alone a salary—the principles remain the same. Over the past few decades, internships have become more common across all industries, to the point where they are now a standard checkpoint on almost everyone’s career journey. The duration, intensity, and structure of internships vary across fields, but the core element is always (supposedly) to provide a learning opportunity for inexperienced workers.

However, as internships become standard practice, they are starting to change the hierarchy of the job market itself, and not for the better. What was once seen as a low-stakes chance to test out a certain industry or role has become a highly competitive requirement for entry into many specialized industries. For many job hunters, it’s beginning to feel like internships are replacing many entry-level jobs, as salaried positions become more and more elusive for recent graduates trying to get their start.

What is the purpose of internships?

The foundation of any internship is the opportunity for a student or worker with little to no relevant professional background to explore an industry or career that interests them and gain new experience that can help them find an entry-level job down the line. Internships are more often geared toward students, providing a more flexible work schedule to accommodate classes and sometimes providing academic credit along with work experience. Internships are a valuable and sometimes necessary opportunity to learn key skills and gain real-world insight into your prospective field. Apart from the possibility of landing a job, internships can also help you earn your degree, improve your candidacy for graduate school, and set you on track for specialized industries like medicine, law, academia, and skilled trades.

Along with boosting your resume, internships can aid you in rounding out your professional profile as a whole. They not only provide you with hard skills unique to your industry but also with personal development and soft skills that will help you navigate any professional environment. In a real work setting, you can build communication skills and build your network by making connections with colleagues that can help you launch your future career.

Who really benefits?

Although internships provide many benefits, the culture and standards around internships in the US have a controversial history tied to corporate greed that might explain why internships are becoming the new entry-level job. One of the largest issues surrounding interns in America is that they are historically unpaid. The controversial ability of companies to employ unpaid laborers in exchange for “experience” lies in a loophole from an old court ruling: In 1947, American railroad workers sued over one week of uncompensated training, and the United States Supreme Court ruled against the workers, creating an exemption to the Fair Labor Standards Act that allowed traineeships to go unpaid. Fast forward nearly 80 years to find multi-billion dollar corporations subsidizing their workforce with waves of “free” or underpaid interns that filter in and out every few months. To qualify for hiring unpaid interns, the position only needs to meet seven requirements outlined by the Department of Labor:

  1. An understanding that the work will not be compensated
  2. Training must be similar to what one would receive at an educational institution
  3. The intern must not take the place of a salaried employee
  4. It must contribute to the intern’s education
  5. It complements an academic calendar
  6. There is a limited duration
  7. There is no promise of a job offer

Is that a vague enough description for you? If not, you’ll be happy to know that not all of these conditions need to be met, and there is no real cut-off for eligibility. With such little regulation around compensation, or even what an intern position has to be, it’s no wonder companies are moving toward replacing entry-level roles with internships. Why train a permanent employee when you can have a revolving door of eager students to bring down the bottom line?

What happened to entry-level jobs?

So, are internships the reason entry-level jobs are disappearing? While it’s true that many companies take advantage of the ambiguous and cost-effective nature of internships to replace many entry-level positions, there are other reasons why these jobs are becoming harder to find. One of the biggest reasons for this is simply how workplaces are changing. In the past twenty years alone, workplace technology has skyrocketed, allowing workers to simplify tasks, speed up once time-consuming processes, and have almost any job-related tools and information they may need at their fingertips.

Consider duties like scheduling, note-taking, compiling data, creating presentations, and many other administrative odds and ends. These tasks, which once required whole positions dedicated to them, can now be done with the click of a button. As these and other somewhat unskilled responsibilities (which were often delegated to entry-level workers) became more streamlined, they started being folded in with more specialized roles as part of the day-to-day work of everyone at the company.

What are your other options?

Although the rise of internships may explain why entry-level positions are falling by the wayside, they don’t provide a solution or an adequate alternative for many workers. One of the other criticisms of the internship complex is that they are inherently classist. The concept of an unpaid internship necessitates that only those who can afford to work for free can gain the required experience to land a job after graduation. This is not the reality for many students and young workers in America, and it certainly isn’t a sustainable model for the future of the workforce. So, what can you do if you don’t feel like an internship is the right path for you? Fortunately, there are a few other ways to build experience and get your foot in the door.

1. Use your network

One of the most valuable tools in any job hunt is your professional network. While internships are a great way to expand your connections, there are other ways to make contact with people in your industry. If you’re still in school, you can attend events, join clubs, and reach out to speakers or professors who may be able to give you advice or even recommend you for an open position. Asking for an informational interview is a great way to hear from someone currently working in your desired career path. You can ask questions about what the work is like and what you can do to improve your chances of getting hired in the future.

2. Hone your skills

Another way to boost your resume without interning is to find different ways of upskilling such as taking online courses, training certificates, or self-teaching. Once you know what skills you need to land your dream job, you can start working on building a skill set that will set you up for success. Online courses or certificate programs can help you add hard skills to your resume that will make you stand out to recruiters.

3. Find alternative experiences

Internships aren’t the only way to gain experience, especially if your goal is to decide if an industry is right for you. One of the easiest ways to get real-life experience is job shadowing. Unlike an internship, job shadowing is a short-term experience where you simply “shadow” a person at work. You can observe how they spend their day and they can explain the job to you without the commitments of a formal internship. If you have a bit of experience already, or feel you are ready to start working, freelancing is another path to building your resume without interning. If your industry uses freelance work, it can be valuable experience when applying for your first salaried position.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Follow Welcome to the Jungle on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram, and subscribe to our newsletter to get our latest articles every week!

Topics discussed