The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are internships the only way for recent college grads to grab entry-level jobs?

President Barack Obama talks with members of the 2012 Summer White House intern class before a group photo in the East Room of the White House on Aug. 7, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.)

During the next few weeks, Washington, D.C. will welcome thousands of temporary residents for a few months: summer interns.

Like many people who now live in D.C., I was introduced to the Washington working world through this annual rite of passage for college students. As a summer intern at U.S. News & World Report, I lived in a dorm at American University with dozens of other college students from around the country. Our jobs were mostly menial and many didn’t pay, but none of us really saw our internships as an extended tryout for a full-time job down the road at our employers.

But in the space of just a little more than two decades since that summer internship, the recruiting game for new college graduates had changed drastically. Perhaps nothing illustrates this shift in how college graduates launch into a career these days as much as the role the internship — an experience most of us took for granted — now plays in the journey to the workplace.

Companies are increasingly bypassing the spring job market, when they typically interviewed college seniors, and instead are hiring directly from their intern pools, offering jobs and forcing students to commit just weeks into their senior year. More than 70 percent to 80 percent of new hires at big companies like Facebook, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, and eBay come through their internship programs now, compared to about half or less just a decade ago.

“There was a time when 50 employers came to recruit for interns,” Patricia Rose, director of the career center at the University of Pennsylvania, told me. “Now we have 180.”

[College students are learning not to fail. They should take these risks instead.]

This new emphasis on the internship has upended the traditional recruiting calendar on campuses nationwide. Because more companies are hiring from their intern pools, fewer are coming to campus to hire seniors as full-timers. Employers want to shift even intern recruiting from the spring to the fall of junior year. “They want to wrap up talent before anyone else,” Rose said.

Indeed, the peak recruitment time for internships is February and March, according to an analysis of nearly 215,000 online job postings for internship positions by Burning Glass Technologies. The Boston-based company provides real-time labor market data by combing the key words in online job postings.

In some industries, including engineering, graphic design, communications, marking, and information technology, the share of internship postings is now a significant proportion of their overall entry-level job openings, the Burning Glass analysis found. That signals internships are increasingly the only way for new applications to get in the door.

“You can’t spend your first couple of summers in college lifeguarding or working as a camp counselor anymore if you have a specific job in mind after graduation,” said Matt Sigelman, the CEO of Burning Glass. “Those typical summer jobs are not going to position you for work after graduation.”

The tightened recruiting timeline seems like yet another effort to short-circuit the first two decades of life. We are hastening the pathway to adulthood at a time when we are living and working longer than ever before and should be doing just the opposite: giving more time to teenagers and 20-somethings to explore careers. College is only four years, yet it might begin to feel like four weeks as students rush to pick a major and apply for internships.

[You finally selected a college, don’t start worrying about your major.]

I saw this first-hand last November, when I sat in on a Goldman Sachs’ recruiting presentation at Penn. On the chairs lined up across the room was a one-page description of the intern recruiting events planned on Penn’s campus: six in all, mostly during the course of the following month, for several divisions in the firm from securities to compliance. Also listed were the deadlines to apply and interview dates.

It was already too late if you wanted to apply for a technology internship. That deadline passed in October. Most of the interviews for the other divisions were to come in January.

At the event, I ran into a small group of sophomores who had come to gather intelligence and get a head start for next year. They were barely a quarter of the way through their college years yet they already were trying to figure out how to jump through the next hoop and line themselves up for a full-time job after graduation.

Investment banking has always been a competitive field, so what I witnessed at Penn was somewhat of an anomaly: it’s not quite that intense in most industries. Even so, according to the Burning Glass analysis, internships are no longer about fetching coffee and making photocopies at most employers. They are real work.

Employers are demanding that more interns come to the position with specific skills already in hand. Students with technology internships are expected to know programming languages like SQL and Java, design interns need to be proficient in Photoshop and InDesign, and basically every intern needs to know how to manipulate a spreadsheet in Excel.

“A job posting is flagging a set of expectations, and they tell us that even internships are asking for really technical skills,” Sigelman said. “It puts a lot of pressure on students to learn on their own outside their core academic program.”

Two decades ago, many of the other students I lived with at American the summer I interned really didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives after graduation. Most of us had applied for our internships just a few months earlier, many without a formal interview, and we were satisfied to enjoy Washington for a summer with a job that didn’t require showing up in a uniform or flipping burgers for minimum wage. Now, unfortunately, the summer internship is seen less as a right of passage to gain some skills and much more of a necessary requirement for students to land a job after college.