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Interns Wanted: Expectations vs. Reality Check [NEW Study]

— June 7, 2021

Although most interns sometimes have to deal with menial work during their tenure, internship programs are still worth their weight in gold when it comes to improving your employability chances. 

Young people need internships to gain their first professional experience and acquire valuable skills for their careers. But is that still the case? Do internships really help get your foot in the door, or are they must-haves on your resume that don’t bring much value?

Researchers at LiveCareer asked 1,000+ Americans about their internship experiences to see if internship programs are worth the sweat and if they generally improve your hireability chances further down the road.

Below are the study’s key findings:

  • Unpaid internships are a thing of the past. A full 77% of interns report they completed a paid internship vs. an unpaid one.
  • Most young adults undertake one (38%) or two (47%) internships. Completing two or more internships positively impacts people’s income at a later career stage.
  • As many as 93% of interns admit they had to perform menial tasks at some point during the program.
  • 68% of respondents said the company didn’t have a structured intern policy and made up tasks as the internship unfolded.
  • That said, nearly 78% of interns feel they gained valuable professional experience that later elevated their employability chances.

Does that sound intriguing? Keep scrolling to learn more.

Unpaid Internships Have Sunk Into Oblivion

We all know that the staggering costs of a college education are not only growing prohibitively expensive, but they also seem to rise from year to year. In fact, some 44 million Americans collectively hold over $1.6 trillion in student debt, according to CNBC.

As a result, most college-aged Americans can’t afford to complete a full-time unpaid internship without pushing their debt load even further at graduation.

Luckily, things have changed.

Based on LiveCareer’s findings, paid internships are becoming the new normal. In fact, 77% of the surveyed young adults report completing a paid internship vs. an unpaid one. 

How much do internships pay monthly? Below is a breakdown of the surveyed US interns’ responses:

  • Less than 1,300$ —31%
  • 1,301$ to 2,000$ — 31%
  • 2,001$ to 2,700$ — 24%
  • 2,701$ to 3,400$ — 10%
  • 3,401$ to 4,100$ — 3%
  • More than 4,101$ — 2%

In addition, the study examined the duration of the respondents’ internships and if there was a correlation between internship length and monthly remuneration. Below are the results (MW standing for mode wage):

  • One month (MW: less than 1,300$) — 10% 
  • Two months (MW: 1,301$ to 2,000$) — 23%
  • Three months (MW: 1,301$ to 2,000$) — 33%
  • Four months (MW: 2,001$ to 2,700$) — 13%
  • Five months (MW: 2,701$ to 3,400$) — 5%
  • Six months (MW: less than 1,300$) — 9%
  • Seven months or more (MW: less than 1,300$) — 7%

It’s also worth pointing out that the respondents who took up two or more internships generally report having a higher income later in their careers. Over half of the survey takers that now make between $50,000 and $100,000+ completed two or more internships vs. just one.

Internship Expectations vs. Reality

When most young people land their first internships, they probably think they’ve made it.

They have found an internship that will most likely give them plentiful networking opportunities, vital job knowledge, and a ton of hard and soft skills that most employers place so much value on.

But—while the above might be true, most interns’ day-to-day reality is not so glamorous. According to the study, only 7% of the surveyed interns performed meaningful work throughout their entire internship program (e.g., contribute to ongoing projects, brainstorm ideas with the team). The remaining 93% of the Americans were involved in:

  • Mostly menial work — 16%
  • Mostly menial work with some meaningful tasks here and there — 29%
  • A mixture of both — 38%
  • Mostly meaningful work with menial tasks on a few occasions — 11%

What’s menial work, exactly? Shredding documents, making coffee runs, or answering phones, to name a few.

Image by Blake Richard Verdoorn, via
Image by Blake Richard Verdoorn, via

One of the probable reasons most interns are inevitably tasked with menial work at some point during their tenure is that most employers don’t have a strong internship structure in place with a defined curriculum, as reported by a whopping 68% of the survey takers, to guide young adults through the program.

So—it could be a good opportunity for companies to flesh out their internship programs and come up with a clear-cut framework that outlines career-related skills to be obtained, challenging tasks to be completed, and generally the internship takeaway.

The Effect of Internships on Hireability

Although most interns sometimes have to deal with menial work during their tenure, internship programs are still worth their weight in gold when it comes to improving your employability chances. 

After all, they provide young adults with an opportunity to obtain a mix of hard and soft skills and generally turbocharge their resumes with relevant experience.

  • 78% of the respondents feel they gained valuable professional experience despite being sometimes tasked with not-so-meaningful work.
  • 79% report their internship led to their first job in the chosen career path.
  • 73% of the interns went on to work for the company in a full-time capacity. 
  • 70% of the interviewees reported the internship positively impacted their soft skills and, ultimately, career crystallization.

Viable Internship Alternatives

While internships are generally considered a bulletproof way to springboard your career, there are strong internship alternatives that can help young adults ease the transition into the workforce, according to the study’s respondents:

  • Part-time jobs or summer jobs — 74%
  • Online learning platforms — 73%
  • Volunteering — 72%
  • Freelancing — 70%
  • Job shadowing — 67%

What’s great about volunteering specifically is that you’ll not only positively impact your community but you’ll also significantly improve your chances of landing a full-time job later on, according to 76% of career advisers.

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