Research Findings

How Undergraduate Internships Lead to Early Career Inequality and Misconceptions about College Majors

April 15, 2021

College graduates are struggling to find middle-class jobs at an historic rate. As recently as 2018, a third of college graduates were underemployed, and the overall unemployment rate for young people jumped to a high of 28% during the COVID pandemic, discouraging recent graduates who believed they would easily enter the labor market after graduation.

Participating in at least one undergraduate internship is a common strategy for college students to “maximize” their employment chances after graduation. At any given time there are over a million interns in the U.S. economy of which roughly a half are unpaid. Yet, we know relatively little about which internships are good for students and which are just short-term work where employers take advantage of students by assigning them limited tasks with little or no remuneration.

My recent work investigates which internships lead directly to entry-level work and which ones leave students floundering after graduation.

To answer this question, I conducted longitudinal interviews with respondents at a large Midwestern public research university. I spoke to 91 seniors in college about their internships and followed-up with 85 of them one year later after they had graduated. Interviewees came from four carefully chosen majors: Engineering, Business, Communications, and English.

Career Conveyor Belt Internships

I found some students have access to what I call career conveyor belt internships. These internships have built-in processes for hiring some, or all, interns immediately following graduation. Usually, interns make a presentation at the end of their internships and their employers decide whether to offer permanent employment. In some cases, interns know just a few weeks into their internship that they will receive an offer of post-graduation employment when their internship concludes.

Students who obtain these kinds of internships often find them through direct on-campus recruitment by employers that have a pre-existing relationship with the university. Students are most likely to access these career conveyor belt internships at a career fair, though career services websites or portals provide other effective options for learning about them.

Career conveyor belt internships share other common characteristics beyond being most typically accessed through career fairs. These types of internships tend to exist in large, profitable firms, in sectors such as manufacturing, consulting, and finance. They are usually full-time and paid internship positions, either over the summer or during a semester as a co-op position.

As a result of these characteristics, most students in my study who found career conveyor belt internships studied Business or Engineering. These students often transitioned into stable, highly paid employment, that begun almost immediately upon graduation.

The English and Communications majors I studied often had very different kinds of internships and therefore very different experiences entering the labor market. Students in these two majors usually find internships on their own, utilizing personal network connections or reaching out to organizations directly. Although research shows that personal connections often help people find jobs successfully, this strategy did not help students find internships that led to entry-level jobs.

In fact, students without career conveyor belt internships often spend 3-6 months job searching after college ends. Many recent graduates grapple with the decision about whether to hold out for a job they are passionate about or settling for either underemployment or a job outside their area of interest.

Business and Engineering majors enjoy large advantages in accessing career conveyor belt internships partially because their career fairs are closed to other majors. English and Communications majors attending the career fair must compete with students from all other fields. Not only does this increase competition, but opportunities are not tailored to their interests.

Not surprisingly, Communications and English majors in my study wanted internships that would lead to employment. They were aware that their colleagues in Engineering and Business had these opportunities. Several expressed frustrations over the differences in their labor markets.

Large firms related to Communications and English, such as publishing houses or media firms, could conceivably recruit on campus or offer career conveyor belt internships, but none were present on the campus I studied.

Internships and Misconceptions about Majors

Somewhat paradoxically, my study showed another difference between the internship experiences of English and Communications majors as compared with those studying Business and Engineering: the former actually utilized their degree skills on the job, while the latter more often at their internship conducted routine clerical or administrative work. 

My research suggests early-career labor market disparities between college majors may be the result of differential internship structures. This fits with research showing large differences in early-career outcomes between liberal arts majors and those who study more “practical” disciplines, with an exception for those who attend elite colleges and universities. At non-elite universities, like the one I studied, access to employment opportunities vary greatly by major.

Nonetheless, superior access to career conveyor belt internships for Engineering and Business majors does not mean these students are fundamentally more employable than English and Communications students. Importantly, liberal arts majors make up some ground in the long run on vocational majors, suggesting cultural narratives around which majors are more employable may be biased toward early-career experiences.

Given this reality, undergraduates from disciplines not typically funneled towards career conveyor belts should perhaps be encouraged to seek content-focused internships that provide meaningful experiences (and potentially greater long-term career growth) over those with prospects for more immediate, but less relevant employment.

That said, universities can enhance job opportunities for their liberal arts majors by forging connections with employers in industries of interest to their students, and by making knowledge of existing connections more available. Students seeking internships primarily as a means of finding immediate post-graduate employment should be encouraged to attend university career fairs. 

Bringing attention to the importance of career conveyor belt internships can help shift our focus away from thinking of some majors as inherently more prepared for the workforce than others, and instead recognize that structures unrelated to skills provide different career starting points for students depending on their field of study. This challenges traditional notions of why practical degrees fields pay off relative to the liberal arts.

Read more

Corey Moss-Pech. “The Career Conveyor Belt: How Internships Lead to Unequal Labor Market Outcomes among College Graduates” in Qualitative Sociology 2021.

Image: Cullen College via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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