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  • Unpaid Internships: A Clarification of NACE Research

    October 16, 2013 | By NACE Staff

    Unpaid interns learn on the job from a professional designer.

    TAGS: graduate outcomes, internships, surveys

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    Recent attention to, and misapplication of, NACE research regarding the correlation of internships and increased chances for full-time employment requires further clarification concerning the limitations of this NACE research effort.

    Specifically, the research in question focused on the correlations between internships and full-time job offers that NACE’s research team has run over the past three years as part of the analysis of NACE’s annual student survey. These correlations have found a strong positive relationship between a student having an internship and an increased probability of receiving a full-time job offer while searching for a job prior to graduation. This is as expected given the emphasis employers tell us they place on work experience when recruiting college graduates. However, the team has also found that this positive correlation does not exist if the internship was unpaid. Students coming off of an unpaid internship and seeking a job prior to graduation had no greater probability of receiving a full-time job offer than students with no internship experience in their background.

    NACE data to date, however, have not allowed for a full analysis of the relationship between having an unpaid internship and the prospects for full-time employment after graduation. To date, NACE has only analyzed the relationship over a limited period of time—the job search prior to graduation. It may be the case, for example, that students coming off of unpaid internships take longer to get a job offer. If it were possible to analyze the data up to six months after graduation, the results may look quite different. Note also that NACE does not have sufficient information about the individual students and their job searches to adequately explain why the statistical relationship the NACE research team found exists. While NACE’s research team found that controlling for gender, ethnicity, and academic major had no real impact on the general finding, the team does not know if there was something distinctive about the places and kinds of jobs for which students with unpaid internships applied (e.g. not-for-profit vs. for profit organizations) that could explain why these students failed to do better in receiving offers. Finally, the NACE research team has not had the opportunity to query employers about their perception of unpaid internships and how those perceptions may impact the potential for a student receiving a full-time job offer.

    For now, the statistical relationship NACE has found between unpaid internships and full-time job offers remains an interesting counter-intuitive result that begs for further, more detailed research. NACE’s research should not be interpreted as a complete analysis of the value of any particular internship experience. The research focused only on one specific variable—the likelihood of obtaining a full-time job offer. An internship (paid or unpaid) may and should have positive learning outcomes that are not necessarily connected with the increased probability of obtaining a full-time job immediately after graduation. Practical experience with knowledge gained in the classroom, perspective on career options to be pursued after graduation, and networking contacts that can be useful further along in one’s career are just a few of the positive outcomes that can be associated with an internship—whether paid or unpaid.

    To provide direction to both employers and career services professionals NACE has published a set of seven specific guidelines by which a work experience can legitimately be considered a proper internship (see Position Statement: U.S. Internships, A Definition and Criteria to Assess Opportunities and Determine the Implications for Compensation). Unpaid internships can be legitimate, valuable extensions of classroom learning, if properly constructed.

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