Do College Students Need More Exposure to the Workplace?

There’s a good reason why unpaid internships “don’t count.”

Photo credit: Meditations, CC0 Public Domain.

This morning I wrote that the next two Billfold stories on my list were about “groups of people who can’t find work, or who can find work but it’s unstable gig-economy stuff,” so we’ll start with a look at the first group: teens and college students.

A Billfolder sent me this article, and there’s a lot to discuss in here:

  1. Whether college faculty should be “aligning curriculum to employer needs,” so that students graduate knowing both how to think critically and function in a workplace environment
  2. Because college students don’t get as much exposure to workplaces, these days; cultural and economic shifts mean teens are less likely to have summer jobs, so they need more of that kind of preparation in college
  3. When college students do get exposure to workplaces, it’s often through unpaid internships which are legal only because they offer college credit
  4. Which means that teens and college students don’t have as much experience in either working a job or earning money, and they’re missing out on some important life lessons:
The result is that for most millennials — and now Gen Z — there’s no sense of easing in to paid work, no gradual evolution. It’s now binary: at the end of college, switch off childhood and switch on employment and adulthood. The anticipation of this sudden shift is producing a great deal of anxiety around the issue of employment, and the first paid job in particular. (An anxiety that today’s faculty, Selingo and I never felt because we all had a sense we were employable — maybe not in the jobs we wanted, but we had a clear sense we would be able to get by.) Of course, the crisis of college affordability and the concomitant mountain of student loan debt means this anxiety is all the more acute.

My immediate response was “well, internships are work, and work-study jobs are work,” but interning and work-studying are slightly different experiences than getting a job in food service or retail, even if your work-study job is in the cafeteria. You’re doing work, but you’re also set apart from the workplace due to your status. (Instead of being part of the team, you’re on a separate team called “intern” or “student.”)

My other immediate response was “I bet there are still a lot of teens and college students with jobs, but they might not be as visible.” If teens want—or need—to hustle for work, they often find a way to earn money, even if they’re working jobs that don’t look like the traditional lifeguard/retail/food service teen gigs.

So take a look at this article and let us know what you think of it, and if you’d like some supplementary reading, here you go: