Résumé-Builder or Rip-Off?

The growing popularity of short-term internships over winter and spring breaks gives students more time in the workplace, but raises questions of equity and value.

February 3, 2012

If your students don't seem relaxed from their between-semester breaks, they may have been working in a new internship period. But in four weeks or so, did they gain much of value?

Students are increasingly using their winter breaks to squeeze in yet another notch on their résumés. Dubbed “winternships” by some, these opportunities are diverse in nature. They can vary in length anywhere from two to six weeks, and while those familiar with the trend say the jobs tend to be project-based – for example, a student spending the break helping to develop a small company’s social media strategy – their content and quality can vary just as much as those of the more traditional summer or academic term setup.

The expansion of winter internships is bound to raise questions of fairness that reached new heights as employers upped their use of unpaid internships over the last couple of years.

The U.S. Labor Department’s reiteration of federal guidelines for private businesses employing unpaid interns set off an ongoing and heated debate over whether the jobs are valuable opportunities for the millions of students who jump at the chance to gain experience (that is, if they can afford to work without pay), or just an opportunity for businesses to save a buck with what some have equated to slave labor. (Those guidelines, which state the circumstances an internship must meet for it to be unpaid, have confused some career centers.)

Data from Internships.com, a company that posts internships and helps link students to employers, show that less than half of winter internships pay students, compared to 36 percent of internships overall (the website manages 60,000 postings). Robin D. Richards, CEO of the company, believes employers are more likely to pay over breaks because it costs less overall. He said winter postings increased 46 percent from the 2010-11 to 2011-12 academic years.

Students have taken up informal work or job-shadowing opportunities over breaks for years, often set up by a relative or professor, and those historically weren't seen so much as actual work experience as a chance to see a profession up close and to think about different career fields. The rise in advertising for formal arrangements could foreshadow a not-so-distant future in which, for a recent graduate trying to land a job, a degree coupled with a summer internship or two may not be enough.

“It’s definitely something in the air – the larger trend, really, is just toward more and more very short-term internship situations squeezed into any conceivable period of once-free time,” said Ross Perlin, a researcher for the Himalayan Languages Project and author of last year’s Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.

That’s not to say that the substantive experience gained during a winter stint will make a game-changing difference for a company deciding between two random applicants. After all, how much can a student really learn on the job for just three weeks (and for that matter, how much can an employer learn about a student)? But a student who interns somewhere over the winter likely has a better shot at getting a longer summer gig – whether at that business or elsewhere – and eventually a full-time job, some career counselors say.

“After they have participated in an internship, they sort of can’t get enough. They are trying to get multiple internships,” said Amy Shimko, coordinator of the advising center at Frostburg State University. “They’re recognizing the value in that actual workplace experience, that they’re getting the real-life kind of knowledge.”

Frostburg State, like most institutions, wouldn’t award credit for such a short internship. Even so, Shimko has seen students land winter opportunities the same way they would try to get a summer internship or actual job.

“What we’re encouraging students to do is to seek internships through networking, so connecting with family members and friends, finding people they know in their communities, especially if they’re going to be returning home during the break,” she said. “A lot of organizations aren’t publicizing that they have internships during that period, but they’re willing to take on interns during that short period of time.”

That was the thinking of Jamira Harris, a Frostburg State student who managed to extend her summer internship at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: after the first semester of junior year, she went back to work the same job over winter break. "Every time I get an internship or something, I try to make it permanent, just in case I can’t find a job,” Harris said. “I always just try to put that out there before I leave – 'You know, I can come back, too.' "

Harris’s summer internship in human resources centered around cleaning up veterans’ records and helping the office go paperless – “grunt work,” perhaps, but valuable, too; she says that as a marketing major, it has been helpful to see the hiring process and the sorts of things she expects she’ll have to keep up with once she gets a job.

Yair Riemer, vice president of marketing for Internships.com, said the students who are taking the winter break internships vary as much as the jobs themselves. "The diversity in terms of student location and type of schools is just across the board," he said.

Harris returned to her project this winter, and will intern at the department again this summer. But while she likes it there, she has realized she can’t see herself working for the government long-term – illustrating a major pro that Shimko observes in short-term internships.

“Sometimes it is students having the opportunity to figure out that what their lifelong dream career was isn’t exactly in real life what they thought it would be like. In a three-and-a-half-week, monthlong internship, they can figure that out,” Shimko said. “Figuring out aspects of a career that you don’t love or don’t have aptitude for is as valuable as an experience that confirms what skills you have and what aptitude you have for a career.”

But to Lynne Montrose, director of the Academic Internship Program at Regis University in Denver, these winter openings could leave out the most crucial component of a standard summer or term-long internship.

“It takes away from an important element of the experience, which is time. Time to process, time to reflect, time to make a mistake and clean it up, time to really learn something and have the time to explore,” Montrose said. “Doing something over time, doing something for almost four months, there’s a developmental progression that sometimes I think is really truncated when you try to jam that into a two-week experience.

“It’s the process of the internship where the learning resides, so to speak.”

Like Shimko, Montrose has been asked by students whether they can obtain credit for winter break internships, but when she says no, they often lose interest. (In the program at Regis, an internship is structured like a course: the students also pay tuition and get a syllabus and faculty adviser.)

Montrose can get behind the idea of a short-term internship, though, as long as the employer provides clear expectations right from the start. If the internship is designed around a specific project, she said, the student should have a timeline for its completion and know what he or she will come away with.

“To me, a valuable experience means they’re going to learn something and the situation is created to maximize their learning, not just to clear something off your plate and have a kid come in and do it,” Montrose said. “This has got to be mutual and it has to be beneficial for both parties, and people have to be very honest about what their agenda is.”

The research firm Intern Bridge has not examined winter internships specifically, but its reports on experience and salary as it relates to length suggests that in looking at internships lasting from one week to four months, students with longer-term opportunities are better off.

By far, students filled more traditional-length internships spanning 5 to 16 weeks (6,147 students) than ones of a month or less (358 students), and level of satisfaction was directly correlated with length. When asked how satisfied they were overall with their experience, students whose internships lasted 13 to 16 weeks reported higher satisfaction (averaging 4.30 on a 5-point scale) than those whose positions lasted 5 to 12 weeks (averaging 4.25 points). And those students reported higher satisfaction than respondents whose positions lasted only 1 to 4 weeks (3.94 points).

About 21 percent of students who interned for one to four weeks received a salary, compared to 55 percent who worked five to 12 weeks, and 47 percent who interned for 13 to 16 weeks.

Robert Shindell, director of content and resource development at Intern Bridge, which as a company believes internships should always be paid, worries that the growth of winter internships could be another step in giving a leg-up to the most advantaged and well-connected students who have the time and resources to pursue such opportunities.

(The problem is exacerbated when the internships, which may or may not be paid, require travel and lodging. While many winter internships are characterized by the students’ initiative in pitching the jobs themselves, Richards said, theoretically to companies in their hometowns, “There’s more internships in New York than Des Moines,” he said. “There’s more action in the big cities.”)

“The definition of the term ‘internship’ has become so bastardized over the years that it has so many different meanings to so many different people. To one organization, an intern is basically a volunteer. To another organization it is a full-time summer student,” Shindell said. “ ‘Winternships’ further cloud the air of what an intern actually is.”

Even though winter-break internships seem to run the gamut in terms of how they are set up, what responsibilities they entail and how students get them, it’s likely that most would fit the Intern Bridge definition of an internship.

“Internships are structured, supervised, and short-term programs in which undergraduate or graduate students perform tasks and duties within an organization in order to gain knowledge and experience,” it reads. “The student may or may not earn monetary compensation from the company and/or academic credit from the university.”

As with all internships, though, the definition’s last line is the one least likely to be satisfied: “Internship programs should benefit both the student and the organization.”

Although Montrose is critical of the value of a winter internship – at least, compared to a long-term one – she made one concession.

“Is it better than playing video games for a month?” she said. “I mean, yeah.”


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