In our modern day, college students are under immense pressure to secure a lucrative internship for their summer break, typically a white-collar internship in their respective industry of interest. Career advisors, mentors, and parents alike hardwire their students to aspire for this, preaching the importance of these internships with a religious zeal. So, the students respond in kind.
These internships have become incredibly competitive, with students applying to dozens just to get one interview call back. In recruiting season, I was coached by multiple career advisors to “play the numbers game,” and just spam my resume and cover letters to as many companies as I possibly could, even if they only had a shred of relevance to myself. My peers received similar advice, simply because there are so many more available students than positions available. It’s a stressful, and, at least for my circle of peers, a fairly universal process.
Thus, an offer back is usually a cause for celebration, despite the low pay and unstimulating work typical of internships. So, why do students snap up these internships like starving hogs? It’s because internships are not about the actual day-to-day work interns do, but for the experience. Trust me, no matter what they say in their cover letter, no one is dying to relocate to a major city for the privilege of refilling coffee, spreadsheet monkeying, organizing contact lists, and making no real money.
It’s a young professional’s “foot in the door”— their way to network with valuable connections that can set them up on their fledgling career journey. It’s also a way to see if they actually like what they’re studying and pursuing when applied in the real world, and more specifically if they like the office culture they work at.
However, Covid-19 changed our world, particularly in the workplace. As we go on year three since the beginning of the pandemic, remote and hybrid work persists. Workers continue to cling to their work-from-home set-ups, and for good reason: it’s convenient, and especially beneficial for those with long commutes, parents with young children, and introverts. But an ugly underbelly lurks below all these benefits. The virtual workplace is the ultimate nightmare for young professionals trying to gain valuable experiences, network, and successfully kick off their careers.
Job listings that trumpet “in-person” internships usually fail to mention that the rest of the office isn’t “in-person,” which defeats the entire purpose. Interns working in an empty office space lack the opportunity to receive the same mentorship and education that they would’ve gotten from the day-to-day interactions and feedback from their superiors, had they been there in person. This is the kind of feedback and training that makes an internship valuable, but it has been effectively zapped from our modern internship experience.
My work should have occurred in the nearby Capitol, learning and working there in real-time. But, I ended up spending my summer in a corner in isolation, watching legislative hearing live streams on YouTube, as opposed to two blocks away where it was happening in real life. My fellow interns in my field who worked next to the Capitol had almost identical experiences. As interns, we were expected to be in the office every day, but the majority of these organization’s full-time employees were still virtual and unable to accompany us to the Capitol for real experiences and training.
Beyond actual education and training, it’s important to physically see what the office culture is like, since it’s extremely difficult to figure this out from Zoom calls and emails. One of the main purposes of an internship is that it’s a temporary position, but it can be a permanent one if it feels like the right fit. It’s hard to commit to a decision if you don’t even know what your options really are.
It sounds harsh, but if I were an employer looking to hire, I’d take these “internships,” that students have done in our modern virtual environment with a grain of salt. The benefits of internships — networking, learning industry skills, professional polishing — are at a fraction of what they were pre-Covid. No matter how we spin it on our resumes, the cold reality is that we spent a summer in an office without gaining many office skills.
My genuine advice for college students in our current post-Covid climate is to go home and get a summer job at a real place; forget about the prestige and pressure of getting a fancy internship in the big city. Go work at your local library, or Dairy Queen, or paint store, or garden store, or babysit. Heck, if you miss the underpaid labor of internships, go volunteer in your community. If you miss paying exorbitant rent prices, go buy your parents a vacation, or a kayak, or a new deck. Or just fuel whatever midlife crisis they’re having.
My point, though, is that at not-as-glamorous, very underrated blue-collar jobs, you are guaranteed to be interacting with real people, learning real skills, and making a real impact. At least in my community, the economy is starving for these kinds of workers, unlike the internship market which is overflushed with fools like my former self who clamored and sweated for the opportunity to watch YouTube in an empty office.
Aurora Weirens studies government at Cornell and is an opinion columnist for The Cornell Daily Sun.