In a 2012 survey by Millennial Branding, 91 percent of the employers responding said students should have one to two internships before graduating, but only half had hired interns in the previous six months. Also, a solid majority of companies said they hired no more than 30 percent of their interns for full time jobs, and 87 percent offered internships that were shorter than they liked to see on resumes.
Labor Department rules say that if internships are unpaid, they have to resemble vocational education, and interns cannot be asked to do work that paid employees could perform. But companies may not always follow these rules. In fact, some have been sued by former interns claiming labor rule violations.
Camille Olson, chair of the complex discrimination litigation practice group at Seyfarth Shaw, says a number of companies have taken steps to beef up their internships.
"A number of them have revised their programs to ensure that they are conforming to the 'benefits to the interns' part" of the rules on internships, she said. And she adds that potential interns can gather intelligence on the quality of internships using social media, or seek out current interns to hear about their experience.
But even if internships are improving, there is the matter of who can afford to seek them out. With tuition at many private colleges running close to $50,000 a year, many students are working while they are in school, and have little time for an unpaid gig.
Olson points out that some colleges offer financial aid or subsidies for students taking internships with nonprofit organizations.
For his part, Schawbel recognizes the potential shortcomings of internships, but says they still offer invaluable training.
(View more: Interns: A Peek Inside the Tech World)
"You can't prove yourself by taking a college course. You can prove yourself by getting internships," he said, adding that he himself has had eight. "A lot of students have loans, and to do an internship while working in a restaurant to pay the bills—there is a lot of pressure right now. But that's the the game you have to play. It's the 'do whatever it takes' model."
Memo to Mom and Dad: you might want to get your child's bedroom ready for a returning tenant.