NACE Journal, February 2020
Internships provide employers an opportunity to identify talent early: Indeed, according to NACE’s 2019 Recruiting Benchmark Survey Report, nearly all respondents (94 percent) said it was very or extremely important to identify talent early through internships.1
According to the same survey, the offer rate for all graduates is 40.5 percent, and nearly 67 percent of the offers made are accepted. A separate NACE survey from the same year of organizations with internship programs found that the offer rate for interns is significantly higher—70.4 percent—and the acceptance rate is also better at nearly 80 percent.2
Based on this basic comparison of recent graduates, it appears that former interns, particularly those with experience at the same organization, are more attractive hires, not only because of their work experience, but also because they are more likely to accept an offer, underscoring that internship programs can serve as a critical pipeline of talent. Thus, converting interns to full-time employees has become a topic of great concern to recruiters, human resources, and the executives that lead these teams.
The empirical peer-reviewed research base has surprisingly little to say about how and why interns are willing to accept offers from their internship employer. The conventional logic proffers that interns who are more satisfied with their experience are more likely to accept an offer from their internship employer. This relationship seems obvious, but the scant evidence available both supports and refutes this notion. One might think that nobody would accept an offer from the internship employer if the experience was unsatisfying, but the individual’s financial situation may be such that the intern is willing to accept any full-time offer. Thus, while the basic positive relationship between intern satisfaction and willingness to accept an offer seems intuitive, the relationship is actually somewhat nuanced.
What is job satisfaction? Loosely defined, job satisfaction has generally been defined as how one feels about his or her job, particularly from an emotional standpoint. It largely includes how individuals’ perceptions about the actual work, coworkers, and work environment.3
Job satisfaction has been correlated with increased commitment to the organization and decreased absenteeism, job stress, turnover, and intention to leave.4 Although interns are akin to short-term employees, the drivers of their satisfaction levels do not differ substantially from those of more permanent workers.5 The biggest difference appears to be an intern’s priority on learning and development in comparison to the priorities of permanent workers.6 Beyond a focus on learning and development, a qualitative study with interns uncovered that interpersonal relationships with coworkers, such as helpfulness and encouragement, and organizational factors, e.g., corporate culture and formality of work environment, were associated with internship satisfaction.7
Increasing satisfaction among interns may lead to similar benefits for the company as it does with permanent workers—reduced absenteeism, higher commitment to the organization, and so forth—but increasing satisfaction may also increase the likelihood that an intern would be willing to accept an offer and convert to a full-time employee.
Willingness to accept an offer
Surprisingly few studies have examined the links between satisfaction and willingness to accept an offer.
- Results from a NACE study of student attitudes, behaviors, and preferences suggested that interns who were satisfied with their internship experience were 5.08 times more likely to be willing to accept an offer from their internship employer.8 This group of more than 2,000 interns included both paid and unpaid interns as well as a small group of co-op students.
- A study on job satisfaction also demonstrated a positive correlation between satisfaction and willingness to accept an offer; however, when considered within a structured equation model (SEM) of intern conversion, the statistical significance disappeared.9 In other words, when considering intern satisfaction and willingness to accept an offer on their own, there was a clear correlation, but that relationship disappears when other factors are taken into consideration, particularly the quality of the communication between the intern and supervisor.
- Using a similar SEM approach, a separate set of researchers also found that job satisfaction did not predict accepting an offer; instead, one’s commitment to the organization was the strongest predictor of accepting an offer.10
- In a study of internship satisfaction, researchers found that, while their everyday job responsibilities are important to interns, the overarching organizational environment is even more influential in their willingness to convert to being a full-time employee.11 For example, the researchers found that task significance and feedback were important job characteristics related to satisfaction and that learning opportunities, supervisor support, and satisfaction with the organization were significant predictors of satisfaction.
Thus, taken together, this current body of research is lacking direct examination of what makes a satisfied intern and what factors predict their willingness to accept an offer.
New Insights Into Interns, Satisfaction, and Offer Acceptance
To explore interns’ satisfaction and willingness to accept an offer from their internship employer, NACE’s research team analyzed recent survey results from bachelor’s degree-level graduating seniors who participated in paid internships (n=911).12
To explore their satisfaction and willingness to accept an offer, we asked about specific aspects of their internship, if they were satisfied with the internship overall, and if they would accept a full-time offer from their internship employer. We reasoned that their ratings on these specific aspects of their internship would predict their level of satisfaction and their willingness to accept a full-time offer from their internship employer. Specifically, we asked students to what extent they agreed with the following statements:
- I was paid fairly.
- I had friendly and helpful coworkers.
- I was given meaningful duties.
- I had a mentor.
- I still want a career in the same industry after my internship.
We then asked them how satisfied they were with their internship and how willing they were to accept an offer from their internship employer. Figure 1 presents the proportions of students who replied that they agreed or strongly agreed with the statements, were satisfied or extremely satisfied, and were willing or extremely willing to accept an offer from their internship employer.
As Figure 1 illustrates, for the most part, these interns were quite positive and satisfied with their experience; yet, only about half are willing to accept a full-time offer from their internship employer.
Following our reasoning that their experience would predict their satisfaction and their willingness to accept an offer, we conducted several logistic regressions to estimate the relationships between these ideas. Figure 2 provides the odds ratios from these regressions.13 For example, Figure 2 shows that interns who agreed/strongly agreed that they were paid fairly were 2.71 times more likely to be satisfied with their internship compared to those who were neutral or did not (strongly) agree they were paid fairly. They were also 2.88 times more likely to be willing to accept an offer from their internship employer.
Even more strikingly, interns who were satisfied/extremely satisfied were 6.90 times more willing to accept an offer from their internship employer than their neutral or dissatisfied counterparts. For context, note that, in social science research, an odds ratio above two is quite large, while odds ratios of 11 or 12 are staggering. Another remarkable example: Interns who had friendly and helpful coworkers were more than 11 times more likely to be satisfied with their internship experience.
There are a few observations worth noting:
- Being satisfied with one’s internship experience is a strong predictor of one’s willingness to accept an offer from the internship employer.
- Compared to the other variables, being paid fairly has relatively weak relationships with being satisfied and willing to accept an offer.
- Having friendly/helpful colleagues, meaningful duties, and a mentor all predict satisfaction much more strongly than they predict the willingness to accept an offer. Moreover, satisfaction is a stronger predictor of willingness to accept an offer than these variables and being paid fairly.
- Wanting a career in the same industry is a strong predictor of satisfaction, which makes intuitive sense—it would be more satisfying to have an internship in the same industry you want to enter. But, interestingly, it is a much stronger predictor of willingness to accept an offer—even stronger than satisfaction with the internship itself. This finding suggests that students may be willing to have a slightly less satisfactory experience if they think it will help them gain deeper entry into the same industry.
Implications for Intern Conversion
Employers should use these findings to focus their energies on improving these aspects of the internships they offer, so interns feel their experience was satisfying.
In our study, we found a strong link between satisfaction and willingness to accept an offer. As a result, employers should be able to improve their intern conversion rates if they ensure their interns have positive experiences in the aspects with the largest odds ratios that are within their control—having helpful and friendly coworkers, providing meaningful duties, and providing a mentor. Employers cannot control the intern’s desire for a career in the industry. The fifth aspect—compensation—is also within the employer’s control, but not as strongly tied to satisfaction as the other four.
That said, employers can leverage the control they have to ensure successful conversion of interns. Despite the fact that it is the weakest predictor of satisfaction, the results suggest that employers should pay a competitive wage, thus ensuring compensation is not a negative factor, but should not rely on compensation to convert talent.
The other three aspects are much more influential in providing a satisfying experience, and, by extension, converting an intern to a full-time employee. However, these aspects can be difficult to control:
- Having friendly and helpful coworkers reflects the underlying culture of the organization or business unit, which is malleable but takes considerable effort to shape.
- Providing a mentor requires buy-in from and training for the mentors-to-be.
- Providing interns with meaningful duties is probably the most fundamental aspect of an internship that will help students gain valuable experience, but it also requires buy-in and commitment from intern supervisors.
All of these programmatic aspects contribute to the intern’s organizational commitment, which researchers found to be a strong predictor of a willingness to accept an offer.14
In contrast, employers have considerably less influence over whether the intern still wants a career in the same industry. However, employers can mitigate this somewhat by asking prospective interns about their level of interest in a career in the industry during their interviews and during mid-program check-ins. Prospective interns with the strongest aspirations to remain in the industry are safer bets to eventually accept a full-time offer.
Future Research Into Intern Conversion
Future research at NACE will build on this study by using these variables to develop and validate a comprehensive model of intern conversion within a structural equation modeling context. This model of internship conversion will consider these variables at the same time rather than one by one as we have done in this study, which has helped determine which variables should be tested in a comprehensive model.We hypothesize that the programmatic aspects of the internship program—colleagues, duties, mentors—and wanting a career in same industry can predict organizational commitment and satisfaction. In turn, satisfaction, organizational commitment, and wanting a career in the same industry will predict interns’ willingness to accept an offer from their internship employer.
We hope this examination of predictors of intern conversion has provided more clarity on critical issues in planning and implementing internship programs.
1 National Association of Colleges and Employers (December 2019). 2019 Recruiting Benchmarks Survey Report.
2 National Association of Colleges and Employers (May 2019). 2019 Internship & Co-op Survey Report.
3 Hackman, J. R., & Oldham, G. R. (1980). Work redesign. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
4 D'Abate, C. P., Youndt, M. A., & Wenzel, K. E. (2009). “Making the most of an internship: An empirical study of internship satisfaction.” Academy of Management Learning & Education, 8, 527–539.
5 Guest, D. E., Oakley, P., Clinton, M., & Budjanovcanin, A. (2006). “Free or precarious? A comparison of the attitudes of workers in flexible and traditional employment contracts.” Human Resource Management Review, 16, 107–124.
6 D’Abate et al.(2009).
7 Rothman, M. (2003). “Internships: Most and least favored aspects among a business school sample.” Psychological Reports, 93, 921–924.
8 National Association of Colleges and Employers (October 2018). 2018 Student Survey Report: Attitudes and Preferences of Bachelor’s Degree Students.
9 Rose, P.S., Teo, S.T.T., & Connell, J. (2014). “Converting interns into regular employees: The role of intern-supervisor exchange.” Journal of Vocational Behavior, 84, 153-163.
10 Hurst, J. L., Good, L. K., & Gardner, P. (2012). “Conversion intentions of interns: What are the motivating factors?” Education + Training, 54, 504–522.
11 D’Abate, Youndt, and Wenzel (2009).
12 National Association of Colleges and Employers (October 2019). NACE Class of 2019 Student Survey (Four-Year Schools). Data were collected from February 13, 2019, through May 1, 2019. A total of 22,371 students from 470 NACE member colleges and universities responded to the questionnaire; among respondents, 3,952 were graduating seniors. For this analysis, we drilled down to graduating seniors who had taken part in a paid internship in the last year, resulting in the final analytical sample size of 911 interns, of which 68 percent are female, 77 percent were white, 19 percent were first-generation college students, and 89 percent grew up in a home where English is the primary language spoken.
13 An odds ratio provides the likelihood of an event occurring relative to another event (or non-event).
14 Hurst et al. (2012).