Don't look now, but they're all around you. They're standing by the copy machine, hovering by the printer, answering the phone. Yes, they're the overworked, underappreciated interns: young, eager and not always paid. And with just 20% of the graduating class of 2009 gainfully employed, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, there are more and more of them each day. (You may even be one of them yourself.)
The importance of internships for securing full-time work has dramatically increased over the years; these days, an internship is less of an opportunity and more of a requirement. In a 2001 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers reported offering jobs to 57% of their intern class. By 2008 that number had reached 70%. There are as many as 300,000 students participating in some form of prejob apprenticeship in the U.S. each year, a number that has increased 10% over the past five years.
While today's summer office jobs bear scant resemblance to the long-term apprenticeships of the Middle Ages, both share the same purpose: jump-starting an ambitious new worker's career. In the trade guilds of 11th century England, a worker would actually pay to learn alongside a "master" who would teach him a skill like printmaking. Apprenticeships could last several years and would start as early as age 16. In many cases, the apprentice was dependent upon the master for food, clothing and a place to live, though this idea eventually disappeared. As the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century began a trend away from skilled labor toward general factory work, apprenticeships largely died out, replaced by vocational schooling. Apprenticeships in some industries reappeared in the 20th century and are now regulated by trade unions and laws. The National Apprenticeship Act, passed in 1937, led to the establishment of the Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training in the U.S. Department of Labor, which works with employers, labor groups and schools to promote apprenticeship programs.
Intern, previously used in the medical profession to define a person with a degree but without a license to practice, became a term for a physician in training following World War I, when medical school was no longer seen as preparation enough for practice. Later, the word migrated to politics as an alternative to the term apprentice as a reference to those interested in learning about careers in government. Meanwhile, co-op programs, in which students would work at a company for an extended period during college, emerged. As the average college tuition increased (reaching about $9,000 for private colleges in the 1980s), co-ops allowed students to earn money to afford higher education in addition to getting real-world experience. From 1970 to 1983, the number of colleges and universities offering the programs increased from 200 to 1,000. Northeastern University launched the first one in the U.S. in 1909, although the practice didn't gain traction until the 1960s. Sure, it took an extra year to earn a B.A., but for three months each school year, students worked for companies they were interested in, tried out careers they weren't sure about and earned money to help cover tuition. Internships, similarly, did not develop until the 1960s and remained fairly uncommon at first.
Internship programs have produced several successes: Bill Gates was once a congressional page, Oprah Winfrey worked at a CBS affiliate during her college years, and Brian Williams was a White House intern for the Jimmy Carter Administration, just to name a few. Of course, Monica Lewinsky was a 22-year-old White House intern when she engaged in an intimate relationship with President Clinton, a scandal that still taints both offices.
Today's interns are not limited to summer jobs at their local businesses. Some programs provide dorm housing in cities like New York and Washington (or even Cape Town or Paris), allowing students from around the country to work for the nation's biggest companies (although not necessarily with a bigger paycheck). Many popular cities even have Facebook groups devoted to providing social outings and networking opportunities for the thousands of interns who descend each summer.
Though internships were formerly touted as an opportunity for students to explore career options, doing so now comes with a price. Some experts argue that internships punish those who might decide later than age 18 what they want to do with their life. More important, they can favor wealthier students, who can afford to not make any money during the summer, over the less privileged. Still, with pressure increasing on students to find work, the clamor for internships is only growing. To land that first job, career advisers now say, applicants should have two or more internships under their belt. Anyone who takes a summer to simply explore might be too late.