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Is Your Internship Program Hurting Your Company?

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A recent careers article in The Wall Street Journal highlighted a new trend that appears to be gaining popularity among college students desperate to land the perfect internship to catapult their fledgling careers: pay for it.

While we'll get into some of the implications of that in a second, it's worth pointing out nice and early that this isn't an issue that only affects students and those they're competing against. Rather, given the role that the internship system plays in companies identifying the talent that will lead them into tomorrow, it's an issue that affects everyone within a business, from the CEO and shareholders on down. Indeed, a company without a coherent strategy for finding and placing interns is one that isn't identifying the best of the vast talent pool currently bubbling at colleges all across the country, and therefore isn't likely to benefit from it in future.

But back to the notion of paying to land an internship: According to the Journal article, there's a booming industry of for-profit companies who will place students with top companies for short stints, usually over summer break. Other companies with hot internships to offer, meanwhile, have been known to auction them off to raise proceeds for charity. The price range for the opportunity to make coffee, photocopies, and maybe even some contacts and a good impression seems to be somewhere between $8,000 and $12,000—and that's for an internship that likely doesn't pay a penny to your kid.

In case your instinct is to spit out your coffee and start railing against the rich and well-connected corralling the best opportunities for their offspring, it turns out that that's not the case; not quite, anyway. Of those utilizing such services, according to the article, "the average student comes from the middle class," meaning that "their parents dig deep" to afford the privilege of buying their kids a foot in the door. The bizarro-world justification seems to be that, by paying someone well-connected to act on your kid's behalf, you're leveling the playing field with all those kids whose parents genuinely are well-connected. Only, if the rich and well-connected aren’t utilizing the firms, one can only assume their kids continue to waltz into positions on a nod and a wink. That's a strange definition of level.

Quite apart from all that, however, there's a real concern for businesses about the practice of third-party intern placement. Any company that sanctions dealing with a third-party recruiter to find interns—and especially recruiters that take a fee from the student—is seriously hampering the competitiveness of its system. Rather than getting the student best suited to the job, they're getting the one who can afford to pay someone to effect an introduction, or put their name at the top of a list. While that may not sound like such a big deal in the grand scheme of things, internships aren't just about students getting the opportunity to put a couple of big names on their resume.

In fact, in that same grand scheme of things, internships should be more important to companies—and therefore company leaders—than they are to students. They're your opportunity to assess—often for free—how the talent of tomorrow can perform in the workplace, and to build relationships that will hopefully see the best of that talent choosing to work for you when they enter the full-time workforce.

While one can't fault the entrepreneurial spirit behind the companies offering such services, the danger is that they undercut the competitiveness of the businesses they're placing students with. By rewarding a "pay-to-play" mentality you may be ensuring that you'll get the type of applicant who's willing—or whose parents are willing—to do whatever it takes to get ahead. What you risk losing, however, are applicants who may be better suited to your company, or more capable in the workplace. As for me, I'm with the woman quoted in the article who says, "The type of students corporate America wants are the students who can find their own internships." Except I'd change "wants," for "desperately needs."

While it may not be the most pressing concern in these times, if your company has an internship program, and you happen to find yourself with a spare minute or ten, consider calling whoever's got responsibility for hiring them and checking out the selection process they use. If it doesn't involve almost as much thoroughness as a regular hire, it could be costing you serious talent in the long run.

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Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com. Originally from Scotland, he now lives in New York, and has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe.

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