I have been on a conference marathon promoting the GEEC (www.geec.es) for the past month – NAFSA, NACE, Global Internship Conference. Here is my main takeaway from these conferences: I am now, officially, anti-internship.

WHAT?!?!?!? How could I say that!?

First, the good news: Everybody finally appears to agree about the state of affairs.

  • – Changes in the workplace and hiring.
  • – Industry is looking for skills and competencies.
  • – Universities are struggling to provide necessary preparation.
  • – Need to teach students real world skills and adaptability.

The list goes on and is shouted from the pulpits of these conferences.

And everybody seems to agree on the solution: internships.

WRONG!

WRONG for many reasons.

  1. Internships are too complex

 There are three values that make up an internship. Value to student, value to company, value to university. It is hard enough to optimize one of these. Optimizing all three is really, really hard.

In a previous life, I was an economics major, a stock trader and even had an algorithmic black box proprietary trading company. One thing that the physics PhD employees would always tell me: if you are trying to optimize for three variables or more, run the other way.

The most realistic target that schools can aim for in their internship programs(at any kind of scale) is adequate, and even that’s a reach.

  1. Internships are not scalable

Every internship is a relationship that requires work to set up and manage. In other words, every internship requires a lot of resources. If a university has 30,000 students, and is committed to internships as its industry engagement solution, it would require an army of “agents” to place and manage all of those students.

Armies are expensive – and in this case, too expensive for all but the richest schools.

  1. Academy + Industry will never play nice

How do we accredit internships? How do we find faculty who will accredit internships? How can we create a class that offers credit for a concurrent internship? How do we get our faculty to assess the internship?

Universities are facing this unnatural problem of bridging academia and industry, and they are trying to find solutions that are equivalent to placing a square peg in a round hole. If only everybody would agree that academia is great at being academia and industry is great at being industry, then industry engagement would be much easier.

The professor to whom NYU assigned the task of creating academic internship companion classes laughed hysterically when an industry professional asked that interns have MS Excel skills. “No way”, he said. “Not us, not ever.” This answer actually came from one of the few liberal arts professors who had industry experience. Never mind that the world today runs on Excel – it’s the equivalent of literacy of the business world.

  1. Internships are not practical

Unless the campus is located in a zone that is highly saturated in industry, internships become a challenge logistically. Students must find means of transportation to the industry and the student’s daily schedule can be severely disrupted. Rural colleges are at a huge disadvantage. If a university with a large student body is committed to high rates of placement, they will be significantly hamstrung geographically and logistically.

  1. Internships don’t offer quality control

This is an extension of the too complex argument. It is just too hard for universities to monitor the quality of internships. There is no way to assure that the students are being adequately challenged and/or supported. Too often, the internship is not adequately productive. Considering the resources required for placement, the reward is too uncertain. At their very core, internships are a gamble. They carry a high risk of placing a student into non-stimulating and unsupportive environments.

  1. Internships are inequitable

Internships, even more than jobs, are often a function of who you know. Privileged students have a great advantage in the amount and quality of internships available to them.

  1. Internships are too hard to assess

Getting corporate managers to do in-depth assessments of students is just not a realistic demand – they are too likely to be too busy. Meanwhile, in most instances, academia is not qualified to assess internships – professors often do not have adequate industry experience. Efforts to create academic classes to accompany internships range from ineffective to silly. The industry does have great tools to assess industry projects and employee performance, but academia is not familiar with these.

  1. Internships are not OWNABLE

Let’s say that a university truly commits to placing its students into internships. The university proceeds to spend millions of dollars to build the infrastructure and relationships to set up internship placements. Aside from all the difficulties sited above, the “business model” behind doing this is completely unsound and counter-incentivized. Why would a university spend resources to send its students (its customers) away? This is an example of the institution spending money to lose revenue (aside from losing control and oversight over the students). This is why scaled and proactive internship placement is unlikely to happen at most of institutions, unless they all begin to behave irrationally. At the end of the day, internships are not OWNABLE by the university.

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“But,” you may say, “internships are the best option for industry engagement and competency building that we have.”

My answer is: No, they are not the best option. There are other options. There are other solutions. In fact, there is a solution that is better at delivering everything an internship delivers and can do so at greater scale and lower cost.

The post with this solution is coming soon. Stay tuned.