It's hard to find anyone who disagrees that student internships are important, essential and no longer optional. Every student should be an intern, and every employer should have one.
The answer is a resounding "yes!" Yet, it is worth thinking about why this is so.
Before figuring out the answer to that question, let's start by defining what an internship is -- and what it is not.
For anyone who has watched Grey's Anatomy or similar TV series, we are very familiar with medical interns who work incredibly long hours and deal with high-stress situations, including matters of life and death.
For the rest of the student population, however, internships only feel that way. At the end of the day, the hours typically range from 15 to 30 hours per week, stress and drama are relative terms, and few lives are truly at stake.
Generally, internships are real-world experiences that help students, both undergraduate and graduate, put into practice the knowledge they've learned in the classroom. For many employers, an intern can provide much-needed help on tasks and projects.
Internships can vary greatly. They can be part-time or full-time, paid or unpaid, summer only or year-round. All good internships, however, share two things in common: They relate to a student's major or area of interest and there is an effort on the part of the employer to help a student learn as well as work.
So, getting back to why internships are important. For employers, interns provide an extra pair of helping hands to solve problems. Over the last several years, employees have been asked to do more with less. As workloads have increased, certain projects -- typically those that are important but not urgent -- tend to get put on the back burner. With the right intern, employees can start checking off tasks on their to-do list.
Additionally, many companies prefer to hire their interns upon graduation. During the internship, supervisors get to see how the student shows up on time, works well with others, takes initiative and meets deadlines. In the internship world, it's called the "four-month interview." Upon graduation, the intern can seamlessly transition into a full-time team member.
For students, there are countless benefits. The most important benefit is the real-world experience. Lots of learning happens in the classroom, but that knowledge becomes a skill and an ability during an internship.
Another benefit is career clarity, which can come in two forms. Either the student loves what he is doing and comes back to school with a higher energy level and enthusiasm, or the internship allows the student to realize it's time to change majors. Although no one likes finding out their chosen career isn't going to work out for them, it's better to find this out sooner rather than later. Often, changing majors is not as painful as it might first appear.
Finally, internships provide a great way to begin networking professionally. The old saying "It's not what you know but who you know" has been updated to "It's both what you know and who you know that counts."
Even if an intern is not hired by the company after graduation, the contacts he or she develops can be helpful down the line. With networking applications such as LinkedIn, it's never been easier to stay in touch with colleagues over time, even in these times of greater worker mobility.
In closing, it's worth mentioning the benefits of having paid internships whenever possible. Employers who pay their interns have much better response rates in most cases, and there is an increased level of accountability when an intern is not working for free.
For those industries where pay is not economically feasible — like nonprofits — or not customary, such as in entertainment, media, health care or social sciences, it becomes even more important that the work experience provide real value to the student, to prepare them for that full-time job upon graduation.
Because in the end, that is the best benefit of all -- providing qualified, competent entry-level employees ready to survive and thrive in an ever-changing but exciting workplace.