Closing the Gap Between College and a Career

In February 1967, then-California governor Ronald Reagan posed a question that largely remains unanswered: What should the true purpose of college be? In Reagan’s opinion, students should go to school primarily to get a job. Editors at The Los Angeles Times disagreed: “If a university is not a place where intellectual curiosity is to be encouraged, and subsidized, then it is nothing.” Are we going to college to get an education, or to secure a paycheck alongside that diploma?

The tensions between these dual expectations of universities are evidenced by the steady rise of internship culture. While students try to reap the rewards of a liberal arts major or a discussion-based classroom setting, they’re also scrambling to get the concrete skill set and workplace knowledge that will land them somewhere besides their parents’ basements after graduation. While the existential tensions of college may have existed for decades, today’s increasingly competitive job market puts students in a place where what awaits them at the end of college looms over their heads since day one of freshman year — or even since high school.

In today’s job market, internships are the new entry-level jobs, which in turn make entry-level jobs the new mid-level jobs. And that means that getting your foot in the door — even with a long list of internships on your resume and a Bachelor’s degree diploma in your hand — is increasingly difficult to do. Search entry-level job openings on any given job board and you’re bound to come up with a slew of options that require two to even five years of experience. According to The Wall Street Journal, the “number of recruiters requesting two or more years of work experience for some middle-skill occupations rose as much as 30 percent from 2007 to 2010.”

Even landing an internship now requires an established skill set. According to labor analytics company Burning Glass in its 2015 internships report, interns “need to have specific skill sets just to get in the door.” Employers expect interns to stroll in on day one with skills that include “expertise in specific software programs, advanced technical capabilities like risk management, or fields like market research and social media.”

But while employers continue to raise the bar higher and higher for even interns, and continue to be more and more selective about hiring, companies are also cutting back funding for training programs and mentoring. According to an article in The Washington Monthly in the September/October 2014 issue, U.S. manufacturers cut the staff responsible for employee training and development by as much as 50 percent between 2006 and 2013. When companies hire someone to do a job, they’re expected to already know how to do it. And then, when students arrive without these skills and without an innate familiarity with a workplace environment, employers are turning to place the blame elsewhere: higher education.

A Gallup poll taken in February 2014 found that “business leaders have doubts that higher education institutions in the U.S. are graduating students who meet their particular businesses’ needs.” Only a third of business leaders surveyed agreed that higher education institutions were adequately preparing students to meet their businesses’ needs. While colleges were originally conceived as places of exploratory learning prior to settling on a career, commentators and politicians like Reagan sought to shift that perception from places of “intellectual luxury” to funnels through which educated young workers could be filtered into the workforce. Ideally, colleges could provide students with both an education and a job — and sometimes this does happen — but, largely, expecting one institution to churn out a class of students each equally prepared for the array of careers and company expectations that awaits them on the other side seems unrealistic.

The burden certainly lies somewhat on universities, but it seems like a big burden for employers to expect colleges to carry alone. After all, there is only so much that a student can learn in school. So much of succeeding in the workplace and in a career field has to do with learning an institution’s culture and specific requirements. Mary Alice McCarthy at New America argues that today’s students aren’t any less prepared than students were in the past.

“I’ve seen those surveys of employers that say that graduates aren’t prepared in the same way,” McCarthy says, “but I don’t really buy that much. I think it’s more a function of a labor market.”

As the labor market has changed, employers seem to have shirked some of the responsibility for training and preparing employees that once rested on their shoulders. Today’s generation of workers faces an entirely different job market than previous generations did. While companies used to view employees as long-term investments, training them in the present so their work would pay off in the future, employers now want workers who can immediately be profitable, less they change jobs soon after the training period is over. Why invest in the cultivation of an employee only to see that employee jump ship a few years down the road?

“Employers rarely invest in capital the way the used to, and millennials have made use of this,” Nicole Smith, an economist at Georgetown University, says. “Millennials are learning what their position is and how strong that position is in the game. They’ve recognized their powerlessness and they’re trying to get more power by increasing flexibility by creating their own terms.”

It’s a chicken-or-the-egg question: Did internship culture shape millennials to behave in this way, or did millennials’ behavior and generational traits influence the rise of a different labor market culture? The argument could be made either way, depending on whether you’re a millennial vying to finally land that entry-level job or you’re an employer frustrated by young workers’ increased mobility in both jobs and geographic locations.

What is indisputable, however, is that this internship culture is likely here to stay. In fact, it’s been here longer than you might think — internships were on the rise long before the economic recession took hold in 2008. Even in the early 2000s, McCarthy says, the labor market was not necessarily very tight and current trends in college graduates’ employment outcomes were already in motion. Internships have become embedded in students’ minds as a way to distinguish themselves from competitors and to explore career paths, and employers have become accustomed to using internships as a way to pick between different candidates. If the recession played any role in the rise of internship culture, McCarthy says, it was likely just acceleration.

If younger generations are going to be pitted against increasingly difficult odds, though, additional assistance is necessary. A Bachelor’s degree today just doesn’t cut it for many career paths, as that’s an increasingly prevalent mark on one’s resume and thus less of a distinguishing factor. While only 13 percent of 25 to 32-year-olds from the Silent generation had at least a bachelor’s degree, a full third of millennials do. Moreover, although internships may bolster the skills provided by a four-year degree and may push a young employee’s resume further toward the top of the stack, not everyone is cut out to pursue a four-year degree, and not everyone can afford the often-meager pay offered by internships.

McCarthy points out that while students who can do internships won’t necessarily end up worse off, students who don’t do them, or can’t afford to, end up paying a price. They don’t have that extra edge.

To further complicate the matter, gaining that extra edge requires finding just the right internship — a paid one. According to a 2013 survey completed over the course of three years by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, unpaid internships actually don’t give students much of a leg up when looking for a job. Students who did unpaid internships were only 1.8 percentage points more likely to receive a job offer compared to students who had never done an internship. While only 37 percent of students with unpaid internships got job offers, 63.1 percent of students who had done a paid internship got a job offer.

This makes the current job market that much cloudier. Rather than being asked to jump through hoop after hoop in the hope of earning a big reward — a job — students need to just be learning the appropriate skills and going through a mentoring process that will leave them adequately prepared for — rather than frustrated by — the job market.

What is really needed is a solution that will effectively match those young employees clamoring for jobs with the skills necessary to catch the eye of employers. That solution should come without the necessity of a debt-producing four-year degree or without slogging through internship after internship. Young employees shouldn’t be expected to go into debt just to snag a two-month opportunity that may or may not lead to any sort of employment. While internships might be the current norm in the workforce, there are some replacements that might be better, both for employees, employers, and institutions of higher education.

Option number one: boot camps. While internships might somewhat sharpen students’ skill sets by learning through doing, picking up some of the technical skills necessary to participate in today’s advanced service economy such as coding and web development can’t necessarily be learned over the course of a summer internship. Moreover, boot camps are confident in their abilities to get students jobs upon graduation. For instance, if students don’t find a job within a certain salary range after completing boot camp, some offer a full refund. Other boot camps don’t even charge tuition — they just take a percentage of graduates’ first-year salary. Gaining that sort of confidence from boot camps first requires students to make a big commitment to the program though. Students must go through an interview process akin to job interviews to gauge their level of commitment, and they must spend at least 10 hours on work outside of their daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. class schedule. One boot camp company, General Assembly, attests that more than 90 percent of students get a job within three months of graduation.

Option two: apprenticeships. The biggest differences between an apprenticeship and an internship are that apprenticeships tend to be longer in length, be much more hands on and narrow in focus, and lead to a job much more frequently. While landing an internship oftentimes requires either a connection or already having experience on your resume, apprenticeships hold the expectation that students are there to learn — and that’s why there is often a classroom experience coupled with the hands-on experience. Moreover, apprentices don’t have to worry about finding the money to be able to work like interns do, as apprenticeships typically pay a livable salary instead of just college credits, minimum wage, or nothing at all.

However, while both of these options provide solutions to some of the problems that internships pose, they also create their own sets of problems. While boot camps can be tremendously useful in boosting young workers’ skills and in producing graduates who reliably land jobs, they can be expensive. Many students who attend boot camps are doing so after they’ve already completed a four-year college degree. While the tabs for boot camps aren’t nearly as steep as college tuition, boot camps still charge anywhere from $4,000 to as much as $18,000. Moreover, boot camps aren’t considered accredited colleges, so students can’t always use federal aid to help cover the cost.

For apprenticeships, while the cost might not be a concern for the students, cost is certainly a concern for U.S. businesses and is a big part of the reason why apprenticeships are not as prevalent in the U.S. as they are in some countries. For companies to feel comfortable enough to consider investing in apprenticeship programs, state and federal support would be needed. Aside from cost concerns, apprenticeships also have a major image problem in the U.S. Some argue that apprenticeships will perpetuate a class society, as two-thirds of the apprenticeships currently in the U.S. are in the construction industry. There’s the argument that students who don’t stay in school and then get a job won’t have the same opportunities available to them, and the prevalence of construction industry opportunities in the U.S. apprenticeship opportunities perpetuates the perception that apprenticeships solely lead to blue-collar work.

Both of these solutions assume that both employers and colleges will remain as they are now, and thus consider potential substitutes for the internships that currently close the gap between the four-year college experience and the skill set necessary to not just succeed in the workplace. But what if either colleges or employers stepped up to close that gap? One very feasible way in which that could happen is through the bolstering of community colleges. With help from Washington, community colleges could offer unemployed Americans the opportunity to upgrade their skill set for the modern labor force, without sacrificing four years and as many tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Employers could also step back up to the plate by reinstalling training programs and funding that has been cut over the years.

No solution is flawless. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t at least try to answer the question that Governor Reagan and The Los Angeles Times debated in 1967. It not only requires exploring other ways to prepare young workers for the labor market; it also requires understanding exactly what the purpose of college — and internships — should be. Undefined expectations are tough to meet.