What’s their Value?: Analyzing how Employers Talk about College Internships

Author: Alexandra Pasqualone 

Literature addressing the value of internships is often student-centered, with analyses attending to questions regarding the barriers, characteristics, and outcomes of internships for students. Additionally, studies have focused on the broader internship experiences that students face—ones centered on the impacts of race, class, and gender. Virtually absent from the literature is an analysis of the discourses, ideologies, and values associated with college internships based on employer perceptions—components integral to the production of the culture of the internship economy (Frenette, 2013; Wolfgram, Ahrens, & Wu, 2020).

How do we attend to such values? Analyzing in-depth interviews with 38 employers from a range of sectors points to three distinct ways in which employers use language to represent a “theory of value” (Graber, 2001) of internships in the emerging economy. Our study thus involves the development of a hermeneutics of value, interpreting how employers use language to represent value as they coordinate internships. Our analysis illustrates how employers deploy three possible discourses as means of valuing, coordinating, and appropriating student internship labor.

Three discourses of value 

  1. Entrepreneurialism

First, employers represent the individual intern as the primary value beneficiary of the internship, which we refer to as an entrepreneurial discourse of value. Values pointing to entrepreneurialism emphasize the benefits attributed to the student participants while also prioritizing soft skill development. This discourse utilizes a mix of corporate and academic jargon to distinguish what they declare as “non-traditional” “innovative” internship programs, that inculcate “entrepreneurial skills.” As the coordinator of a corporate internship program explains:

“So, what we structured is an internship opportunity for students across the country, or, sorry, across the state to opt in, and work on critical path projects for other corporate challenges, student innovation challenges, or start up challenges over a 10-week long cohort model. So, essentially, they are split up into teams, diversified. And the goal is to build entrepreneurial skills that are also indicative of soft skills development, meaning your creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication skills. All the skills that all the employers … are saying they want their employees to have. Restructure a program to develop and continuously iterate upon those skills in a collaborative, diverse environment.

Interns benefit from internships by acquiring “skills” that enhance their marketability of the employment market. Entrepreneurialism is thus a theory of value that highlights the individual intern as the primary beneficiary of the internship, through the acquisition of skills, experiences, and enhanced marketability.

  1. Corporate Efficiency 

Second, employers represent the organization or firm as the primary value beneficiary of the internship, which we refer to as a corporate efficiency discourse of value. This theory of value emphasizes the organization or the firm as the primary beneficiary. Rather than emphasis placed on the value transferred to the intern by the internship labor (as is the case in entrepreneurialism) focus is instead centered around the interns’ acclimation to company culture, client needs, and the appropriation of student labor to satisfy the seasonal, short-term, or contingent labor needs of the firm or organization. In one example, an employer at a tax preparation firm discusses the importance of student interns in filling positions that would otherwise be conducted by the organization’s staff:

they’re helping us by helping to fill a position whether it’s just very temporarily or for the summer or for half a year, you know. So we also get that back as well. So it’s kind of a win-win for both of us.”

The corporate efficiency discourse often employs a cost-benefit analysis, juxtaposing the costs of the internship program to the corporation against the benefits of the intern’s labor. For example, an internship coordinator for a finance firm explains:

“I would say, fiscally, it’s a huge investment. We sponsor them to earn their state licenses. We pay agent dues. We pay staff to do their admin work. We pay for their phone, their, you know, printing, their office space that a normal business owner would … we’re providing all of that.”

These costs of the “investment” are juxtaposed against quantifications of the value appropriated by the corporation, for example, in the form of the conversion of interns to value-producing permanent employees:

“They [former interns] make up half our leadership. We only have 3000 interns every They help more people. They make more money than our traditional full-time advisors who start after college year that go through the program and 7000 full-time advisors, but of those, you know, 1000 students who will join us, they make up about 60% of leadership for the entire company out of all the financial advisors, were interns. About 1 intern is about comparable to 3 full-time advisors as well on productivity. So they meet with more people. They help more people. They make more money than our traditional full-time advisors who start after college.”

The corporate efficacy discourse often employs an audit culture that quantifies the value of the internship in terms of measurable outcomes, such as the internship retention rate as new employees—which translates into increased financial value for the company, that is, “They make more money than our traditional full-time advisors who start after college.”

  1. Community Service

Third, employers representing the industry or society in general as the primary beneficiary of the internship —rather than the intern or the firm—we refer to as a community service discourse of value.

“it’s to be able to trial new talent that’s coming out in the industry as well as to do I guess a service to the community as well, to give people, if we are not able or in a position to hire an intern, at the end of the engagement, that they would be able to take that experience, which would better the community, to another organization.”

In this example, the organization, according to the employer, serves to ready students for placement in organizations within the broader industry. This particular employer acknowledges that for some, their organization may serve as a stepping stone, rather than a final destination for students entering the industry.

While employers note goals of supporting the success of the intern and the host organization, value is placed on the benefits of developing a talent pipeline where successful interns may support companies and industries as full-time employees. Additionally, employers who exemplify this community service theory of value, attend to the societal importance of contributing to future workforce development through their role as an internship-hosting organization.

 “Yeah, there’s no downsides for us. Like we, I mean, thinking if I think about this, think about this for a second. We were a bridge between massive corporations, higher education and the entrepreneurial community, and our job essentially was to facilitate the opportunity to make connections and move talent along those different pipelines.”

Society (and particular industries within society) are represented as recipients of the value produced through the internship by a better trained and socialized workforce, and through enhanced college-workforce pipelines for college students.

Conclusions: Why does value matter?

So why do the values employers place on internships matter? Importantly, the theory of value that employers used to coordinate an internship program inform the goals, work design, supports, and recourses associated with the program, all of which impacts how interns experience and benefit from the internship.

In terms of research on college internships, findings from this analysis suggest that a theory and hermeneutics of value can provide a critical and nuanced understanding of phenomena that are of central interest to how employers structure how students experience internships. Future research in this area could analyze the ways particular discursive and narrative forms are employed to construct and distinguish theories of value used by employers coordinating internship programs.

Alexandra Pasqualone is a Project Assistant at the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions.

The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author.


Works cited

Frenette, Alexandre. (2013). Making the Intern Economy: Role and Career Challenges of the Music Industry Intern. Work and Occupations, 40(4): 364–397. doi:10.1177/0730888413504098.

Graeber, D. (2001). Toward an anthropological theory of value: The false coin of our own dreams. Springer.

Wolfgram, M., Ahrens, V., & Wu, Z. (2020). One internship, two internships, three internships… more! Exploring the socioeconomic and sociocultural factors of the multiple internship economy (WCER Working Paper No. 2020-11). University of Wisconsin–Madison, Wisconsin Center for Education Research. http://www.wcer.wisc.edu/publications/working-papers.